This is an excerpt from the draft of my upcoming book on great founder theory. It was originally published on SamoBurja.com. You can access the original here.
Let’s say you are designing a research program, and you’re realizing that the topic you’re hoping to understand is too big to cover in your lifetime. How do you make sure that people continue your work after you’re gone? Or say you are trying to understand what Aristotle would think about artificial intelligence. Should you spend time reading and trying to understand Aristotle’s works, or can you talk to modern Aristotelian scholars and defer to their opinion? How can you make this decision? Both of these goals require an understanding of traditions of knowledge — in particular, an understanding of whether a tradition of knowledge has been successfully or unsuccessfully transmitted. But first: what is a tradition of knowledge?
A tradition of knowledge is a body of knowledge that has been consecutively and successfully worked on by multiple generations of scholars or practitioners. In talking about a tradition of knowledge, we may be talking about a philosophical school of thought, or perhaps a tradition of intricate rituals in a religion, or even something as humble as the knowledge of how to fashion the best wooden toy horse, passed down from one craftsman to another. In the contemporary world, it may include something like the tacit knowledge of how a codebase really works, which senior engineers teach to junior engineers. It is useful to classify traditions of knowledge into three types: living, dead, and lost traditions.
A living tradition of knowledge is a tradition whose body of knowledge has been successfully transferred, i.e., passed on to people who comprehend it (e.g., cryptography). The content of the tradition’s body of knowledge does not have to be strictly or fully accurate for the tradition to be living; it merely needs to be passed on.
A dead tradition of knowledge is a tradition whose body of knowledge has been unsuccessfully transferred, i.e., its external forms, its trappings such as written texts have been transferred, but not the full understanding of how to carry out this tradition of knowledge as practiced (e.g. scholars who can recite Aristotle but can’t use arguments as he did; Buddhist monks who chant the instructions to meditation rather than meditating). This means a tradition can be dead while people still read its texts.
A lost tradition of knowledge is a tradition that has not been transferred at all (e.g. numerous schools during the Hundred Schools of Thought period in China; the theology of the Cathars, which is only preserved in the words of their critics, etc). The people who had the knowledge died without leaving any successors or substantial record of their knowledge.
It can be difficult to distinguish between different traditions of knowledge. There are traditions within traditions, and there are traditions that become fellow travelers, in the sense that they are related to but merely adjacent to one another. There are also traditions that have a long history of arguing against each other. Perhaps the best example of such traditions are to be found in the realm of theology: the multitudinous schisms between and within the major branches of Christianity, such as the intra-Protestant debate between Calvinists and Arminians which began in the 16th-century Netherlands and continues to this day among some evangelicals; the centuries-long debate began in the 3rd century AD between the dominant Vaibhāṣika school of Buddhism and its successor faith of Sautrāntika in the patchwork of northern Indian states following the fall of the Mauryan Empire; and the infamous warring between Sunni and Shia Islam. We can find other examples in political thought: the ancient debates between Confucians and Legalists in China, the enemy factions of Anglo-American liberalism and conservatism, and the debate between the Originalist and Living Constitutionalist schools in American constitutional interpretation, to name a few.
It matters whether a tradition of knowledge is living or dead. This is obviously the case if you are starting a research program — you want the tradition you start to stay alive. Whether or not the Aristotelian tradition is dead also matters if you are trying to understand what Aristotle would have thought about artificial intelligence: it determines whether or not you can trust the “authorities” on Aristotle — if the tradition is dead, then their expertise will not be helpful to you. It also matters if a tradition of knowledge is lost: this will inform your understanding of what it is possible to know about that tradition. For now, we will focus on understanding how to distinguish between a living and a dead tradition. This can be tricky; it’s hard to trace traditions of knowledge, so it’s also hard to notice when they die.
How can you tell whether a tradition of knowledge is living or dead? First, you have to be able to identify signs that indicate the existence of a tradition of knowledge. You have to be able to recognize signs that indicate the existence of a tradition at all, then determine whether those signs taken together indicate that the tradition is dead or that it is alive. The signs used to recognize the existence of a tradition are the same signs used to distinguish between living and dead traditions.
Signs of Traditions of Knowledge
Signs that indicate the existence of a tradition of knowledge vary in the degree to which they indicate that a tradition is alive -- that understanding has been passed on. A collection of signs that weakly or do not at all indicate continuity of understanding, without any signs that strongly indicate continuity of understanding, is a sign that the tradition under investigation is dead. Below are some common signs.
Figure: Signs of traditions of knowledge. These are listed roughly in order from best to worst indicators of a living tradition.
It’s important to remember that in order to trace traditions, you have to investigate the actual transfer of knowledge. This means that you can’t, for example, rely on the existence of a physical location where the tradition is supposedly kept to justify that the tradition is alive. There are many possible scenarios in which a tradition has died or been lost, and yet the physical location of its origin has been preserved. A useful way of determining whether a tradition of knowledge exists and is living is by investigating chains of master/apprentice relationships. When looking at the works of masters and apprentices, you can tell whether there are shared methods, concepts, ideas, and so forth.
Furthermore, the existence of master-apprentice relationships at all is an indicator of a living tradition, because master-apprentice relationships are especially effective means of knowledge transfer. This is borne out by the historical record. For example, Kongō Gumi, the world’s oldest continuously-operating company and a family-owned construction firm based in Osaka, Japan, has extensively used the practice of mukoyōshi—by which a son-in-law is formally adopted into the family as an apprentice and eventual company owner—to stay in business since the year 578.
What keeps a tradition of knowledge alive? First, let’s review our definition of a living tradition of knowledge: a living tradition of knowledge is a tradition in which either its founders are still alive and practicing, or its body of knowledge has been successfully transferred, i.e. passed on to people who comprehend it. There are multiple features of a living tradition that we can look for in order to determine whether a tradition of knowledge is alive or dead.
Transfer of Verification Mechanisms
Scholars and practitioners in a body of knowledge will often use discrete techniques or mechanisms to verify their work for accuracy. This is, essentially, a form of quality control that allows new work in a tradition of knowledge to be verified against reality. Whether it’s an oral examination at a medieval university, Napoleon riding into camp unannounced to review the troops, or a surprise internal performance review at the office, the principle is the same.
Transfer of Mechanisms for Correcting Transmission Errors
In addition to verifying new work for accuracy, it is also important to check new work for consistency with a previous or original body of work in a tradition. Errors in transmission from one generation to the next are almost guaranteed and thus require proactive measures to correct them and maintain the fidelity of a tradition—as fastidious Torah scribes, who will restart an entire scroll if they make a single error, can attest.
Transfer of Generating Principles
While there are mechanisms that can be used to check your work, it is also possible to transfer the principles that generated the tradition of knowledge in the first place. Someone who understands the generating principles of a tradition will be able to verify or check their knowledge, but, more importantly, they will also be able to extend it while remaining faithful to the original body of knowledge. An example of a generating principle is a technique for theorizing, such as the process of deductive reasoning.
Explication of Generating Principles
Generating principles must be passed down from one generation to the next implicitly, if they are to be truly transferred and understood. This is because the production of knowledge, in the limit, is almost always too difficult to put into words. Furthermore, not all knowledge is purely linguistic. However, in the absence of an ability to transfer generating principles implicitly, it is also possible to make a praiseworthy and useful attempt to transfer generating principles explicitly. The philosopher Mortimer Adler’s 1940 book How to Read a Book could be considered an attempt at explicating a generative principle—namely, how to read well!
The Production of Masters
A living tradition is able to produce masters of the tradition of knowledge, ideally, both reliably and frequently. Here we might contrast a master of a tradition of knowledge with a student, teacher, mediocrity, or even a mere expert. A master is most likely to be able to preserve, understand, extend, or reconstruct a tradition as necessary.
The Production of Reliable Teachers
While a living tradition of knowledge should be able to produce masters, it will necessarily produce far more teachers. While a master may be key for reconstructing or extending a tradition of knowledge, it will be necessary to have teachers who will primarily solve the counterfeit understanding problem (see below).
A tradition of knowledge, like any successful effort involving many individuals, will require an institution in order to maintain and repair itself. This institution will need a great founder to found it. It will need to solve the succession problem. It will need to be periodically repaired by live players. It will have to deal with all the problems any other kind of institution must grapple with, such as setting up defenses against the destruction or capture of the institution by unaligned outside forces. While an institution’s maintenance of a tradition of knowledge is distinct from the tradition of knowledge itself, it is often the case that one institution is mostly or overwhelmingly responsible for the maintenance of a tradition of knowledge and, when the institution fails, it becomes exceedingly difficult or impossible to preserve the tradition.
Remember: traditions of knowledge are preserved intentionally. It’s hard to keep a tradition of knowledge alive.
Dead Traditions and Counterfeit Understanding
The overwhelming odds are that traditions become lost or die. Decay is the default; entropy usually prevails. As a consequence, the number of problems related to transferring a body of knowledge is significant. Any one or combination of these can cause a tradition of knowledge to die.
Students of a tradition can appear to possess understanding of a tradition’s body of knowledge despite actually lacking it. This is counterfeit understanding. This can happen if students merely reproduce the teacher’s statements without understanding the underlying knowledge, or are simply cheating. This can also happen if teachers cannot correctly assess whether the students have achieved real understanding.
Some types of knowledge are particularly vulnerable to counterfeit understanding, such as knowledge about introspection, which is quite difficult to verify. Even types of knowledge that we might think are robust to counterfeit understanding may not be. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that institutions that produce material effects, for example, have an easier time transferring knowledge—it is probably easier to teach someone to be a Little League baseball coach than it is to teach them to carve a totem pole or manufacture a precision machine tool. There are a number of sub-problems that exacerbate the problem of counterfeit understanding:
Standardized education is useful because, among other things, it is easily scalable, but standardized methods of education (e.g. standardized tests as a means of assessment rather than non-standardized evaluations by masters) tend to produce counterfeit understanding because education is too complex to be easily standardized. This problem is closely related to Goodhart’s Law, which states that “when a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.” After a while, test scores no longer reflect general ability, but rather skill at test-taking. To prevent this from happening, any successful system of standardized education would need masters to switch up the standards every now and then, to keep testees on their feet and ensure they could not meet standards with counterfeit understanding.
Purported Change of Purpose
Sometimes counterfeit understanding will be concealed by hiding the resulting loss of capacity as change of purpose. If a country has failed to keep the knowledge of how to make swords alive, for example, they might conceal it by saying, “We don’t need to make swords! The style of combat has changed to favor spears.” If the tradition is dead enough, they might keep saying this until they are thoroughly conquered by sword-users.
Difficulty Recognizing Mastery
Being able to tell whether people have true or counterfeit knowledge is a difficult skill. Even a master in the tradition’s knowledge itself may lack this ability. This is related to the problem of assessing introspection. Humans are, quite simply, not telepaths, and it is difficult to know with certainty or fidelity what is actually going on in someone’s head. Consider, for example, the rise of deconstructionist theory in the Western academy. The current generation of professors that teach this theory to students by and large lacks the intimate knowledge of the structures to be deconstructed which founders of the theory such as Deleuze possessed, and thus while students appear to be aping the forms of the old postmodern theorists, the underlying tradition of knowledge has in reality died.
Death of Implicit Models
People who don’t understand the distinction between implicit and explicit models, and who thus can’t or don’t transfer their implicit models, will fail to transfer the actual body of knowledge—unless the entire body of knowledge has been successfully made explicit, which is exceptionally difficult, if not impossible. For example, a craftsman may think he is transferring knowledge by writing down the instructions for how to fashion a particular type of wooden toy horse, but may not realize that the pressure he applies with his tools is as important as the motions he traces.
If the generating principles of a tradition’s body of knowledge are not transferred, then students of this tradition won’t be able to re-generate knowledge that has been lost, or generate new knowledge that builds upon the tradition. Barring perfect knowledge transfer by every generation, which is extremely difficult if not impossible, this will result in the decay and eventual death of the tradition.
Syncretism, or the amalgamation of different schools of thought, is a moderately negative sign that people may be failing to transfer a tradition of knowledge. While syncretism is fine if it is an upgrade to the tradition, it is often difficult to tell if it yields an upgrade. There are three cases in which syncretism indicates a dead tradition: first, if people are trying to import something into a system that doesn’t make sense; second, if people are importing things because the original tradition has stopped making sense to them; and finally, if the institution which has served to transmit the knowledge has been captured (see below). Examples of syncretism abound in history, whether considering the traditional amalgamation of Shinto and Buddhism in Japan, the common practice of identifying foreign gods with one’s own in antiquity, and much more besides. What syncretism signifies for a tradition of knowledge is itself a difficult question that must be answered specifically for each instance.
Single Points of Failure
Although creating an institution dedicated to transferring a tradition of knowledge is very useful, and is necessary to preserve a tradition in the long run, it can also be dangerous. By institutionalizing a tradition, you can also introduce single points of failure. The bad judgment of one teacher at an organization, for example, can yield a whole class of students whose thought is severely damaged. One may attempt to lessen this problem through institutional redundancy, establishing multiple centers of knowledge to independently and mutually verify each other’s work; but maintaining such a subtle dance of coordination between multiple institutions becomes a skill in need of transfer in its own right, and this greatly increases the risk of schisms.
If an institution built to transfer a tradition of knowledge gains power or prestige, it will attract people who want to use the institution for other purposes than the preservation and development of the tradition. Once the institution is captured for the power it holds, and the goal of the organization is no longer to transfer the tradition, the body of knowledge can easily fail to be transferred. Some types of knowledge are extremely vulnerable to institutional takeover, e.g. traditions involving political theory, because every social theory is also an ideology.
There are various ways to defend a tradition from death by institutional capture. One way is simply to understand the tradition — it’s much easier to defend it if you understand it, because others can’t distort it while you’re unaware. Another way is to tie resources to the propagation of the tradition, for example, by dedicating a grant to fund people who only work on certain texts. Implementing these defenses, however, is tricky. If you overdo the defense mechanisms, they may prevent the successful transfer of knowledge. You can imagine a grant tying people to a particular work being detrimental if actual understanding is achieved by reading a different work, and there is no financial incentive to read that work. On the other hand, if you underdo the defense mechanisms, and the institution is captured, the tradition will die just the same.
Read more from Samo Burja here.
I'm finding this a bit vague, to be honest. More examples would be good. For instance, modern mathematics is a living tradition, certainly, but modern mathematics would not help if you wanted to answer "how would Archimedes consider the Riemann hypothesis?" Now, Archimedes's school certainly died, under a Roman sword, but a historian with some mathematical knowledge might be able to have a guess.
I think the post is conflating three things: a) Can anyone today say something correct about the origin of the tradition of knowledge, b) has the tradition of knowledge passed down the initial knowledge accurately, and c) is the tradition vibrant and productive today. Mathematics obeys c) but not b), and historians of mathematics can do a) about mathematics, but mathematics itself can't. In my opinion, Catholic ethics obeys a), b) somewhat, and not really c).
This really reminds me of some of what Kuhn wrote about in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. One important additional way to identify living traditions that Kuhn notes would be that the texts used to instruct students are not the original works where ideas were first outlined but have been re-written to be clearer. The ability to say the same thing in different words is almost central to a tradition's life.
Indeed, he was one of the major influences on my views of society, epistemology and knowledge.
Mortimer Adler uses the same argument in How to Read a Book to argue for reading original texts, because they are known to have allowed for the transmission of relevant knowledge, textbooks sometimes succeed and sometimes fail at this.
(This comment is me trying to generate my own signs of successful traditions of knowledge, before reading most of the post. Is fairly rambly #BetterWrittenQuicklyThanNotWrittenAtAll)
My first thought on what signs to use when looking for the life of traditions, is to borrow from models of hiring (a company's hiring process is what determines whether the core insights of a company have been successfully shared to all its employees, so it seemed analogous). Some quick examples:
For intellectual traditions, I'd look to how much selection the practitioners of the art had on who followed them, and whether they were able to train them a great deal. For example, if you're trying to continue a tradition of building compilers a certain way at Stanford, if you're a professor there you'll get to choose your postdocs from a wide set of excellent PhD graduates. If you're able to work with a number of them first too, then you get a really strong sense of how they all think. An extra fun thing is that you're able (with such a technical field as CS) to pick technical problems that you give people when they apply, and that you swear them to secrecy on, so that nobody can learn them in advance and practice for them. Pick a question that's a good indicator of the core technical understanding, and you're off to the races.
Any process of passing on knowledge that doesn't have these attributes will be correspondingly worse.
Another thought on this is from HPMOR. As it says in the book, the difference between Minister for Magic, and Order of Merlin is that successive Ministers are voted in by the wizarding public, whereas the Order of Merlin is handed on by personal choice of the previous holder of the Order of Merlin at their death - and this is why the Minister of Magic is Cornelius Fudge, and the Order of Merlin is Albus Dumbledore. An unbroken line from Merlin himself. This is related to the students of Noble Prize Winners often being incredible themselves (something I've been told but never verified myself FYI).
So these are hiring analogies. I expect that most of Samo's examples will be natural to this framework. If not... then it's probably due to looking at different scales of the process. For example, you can guess if a company has a good hiring process if they're successful, so you can look back at great companies and suppose they're successful. Analogously, if a field (e.g. mathematics) consistently produces great insights over the course of a century, you can guess that the tradition was alive. And at the other end of the scale, you can probably look at the general rationality signs of the person doing the hiring, as opposed to the process itself.
Okay, that's my brainstorming.
goes and reads post
Overall I had an okay basic framework, but the post had a delightful amount of detail that I either hadn't noticed or hadn't made explicit, so I give myself a C+ grade. (And now I'm super excited for sequels to this post!)
Excellent exercise! It seems a good way to evaluate content, initially building out or explicating one's own models before comparing it to someone else's, I will remember to do this.
I'm happy to hear you've found the model I present on useful and interesting!
Thanks. The important parts I neglected to do (due to time, will see if I can come back and finish in next few days) are:
Curated this post for:
Something that could have made the post even better, would have been if it was a more engaging: a long listing of different considerations makes for somewhat dull reading, and I easily found myself starting to skim rather than actually paying attention to everything.
A lot of traditions of knowledge die because they aren't useful and lose out to competitors and that's okay. Often useful bits get used by other traditions and the work of the founder of a tradition wasn't in vain.
Yeah. I think curiosity is the main ingredient. If you're curious, you can restore a tradition from a book just fine, and probably add your own stuff in the process, as Renaissance scholars did.
That leaves the question of whether curiosity itself is culturally transmitted. But I think it's innate, children have it when parents don't.
If access to learning mastery in an ongoing living tradition, or having the best chance of reviving a dead tradition if so-called experts of it can't be relied upon, requires access to a physical location, that doesn't seem like an insurmountable obstacle for most people. Elon Musk predicts one day it will be in the reach of the average middle-class person if they wanted to afford a ticket on the trip to Mars. If that's realistic, I think it's within the grasp of the average person to gain access to high-fidelity body of knowledge of a tradition. This includes physical locations. I can think of some common barriers.
Adjusting for these considerations, it seems within reach for most people to gain access to a physical location which preserves a tradition of knowledge with enough fidelity to allow at least expertise to be gained in many different traditions.
This is an excellent analysis of a particular aspect. Firstly I do want to emphasize that this mindset is already very rare, few people reason from the existence of traditions of sound knowledge and begin thinking how to access them. The exercise for most remains, pardon the pun, academic.
The only thing I would add is less of an emphasis of universities and more on particular institutions such as branches of government or particular companies. This represents a kind of institution that, assuming a sound career or skill-set, those in middle age are better positioned to understand and make use of. Particular social circles can fulfill this function as well. Further those in middle age can and do easily gain access to postgraduate education of high quality but seem to do so less frequently. As a very practical example I could cite Robin Hansons reorientation towards the social sciences after a successful stem career.
I think of Samo's posts, this one was the one that stuck with me the most, probably because of my strong interest in intellectual institutions and how to build them.
I've more broadly found Samo's worldview helpful in many situations, and found this post to be one of the best introductions to it.
I feel that those post neglects the potential for traditions to be revived. Maybe the revival will be different from the original, but it very well may constitute an improvement as they can learn from subsequent reactions to the movement. Traditions also have a tendency to get locked into certain flaws and those who revive it have an opportunity to avoid at least the most obvious of those.
One interesting example of traditions being revived might be the Historical European Martial Arts community: there is no unbroken lineage of teachers who would have kept the art of fighting with, say, 15th century weapons alive to this day. However, there are surviving manuals that were written by masters of that time, and communities have sprung up which have taken the manuals, started training according to them, and turned the whole thing back into an actual living martial art where people are once again figuring out the best ways to fight using these weapons.
Promoted to frontpage.
(Also, this is probably my favorite post in this sequence so far, and I quite enjoyed it. Thank you for writing it!)
read for research on my EA/rationality novel project, pretty relevant, well laid out
How much can a tradition tell you about the opinions of its founders?
To what extent do the various traditions of Christianity fit your definition of a living tradition? How much of the content of the most 'living' Christian traditions comes from Jesus, and to what extent does this content reflect Jesus' actual opinions or those of the early Christians, insofar as this can be known?
You can ask the same questions of any other tradition or genus of traditions. Confucianism, for example, or some school or other of Buddhism.
(Presumably, any difference between living traditions reflects some sort of change in at least one of them -- unless 'free variation' existed at an early stage, and different descendants converged on different resolutions of the variation.)
It's possible for traditions to be heavily modified upon contact with other traditions without syncretism taking place, and even with deliberate esoterogeny. I've read that Indonesian pagans, upon contact with Christianity and Islam, set about trying to reform their paganism along Abrahamic lines -- not with the aim of becoming more like Christianity and Islam, but with the aim of preserving their tradition and its distinctiveness from the Abrahamic religions, by reforming paganism into an equal of Christianity and Islam, a "serious religion". Of course, it just so happens that the models for "serious religion" are the Abrahamic religions.
Are there traditions that are unusually good at preserving their contents? How did these traditions preserve them? Of course, this requires having a definition of 'contents'. The Rig Veda had been around for a thousand years before writing came to India, and the earliest known manuscripts of it date to about fifteen hundred years after that (although there were almost certainly earlier manuscripts that decayed or were lost) -- but it was mostly unintelligible until modern historical linguistics, and the proposed interpretations were mostly off the mark. Even now, a lot of it is obscure. But the text is very well preserved.
Interesting overall, but more examples would have been helpful.
I'm struggling with clarity in my head using the current labelling:
Living traditions - makes sense.
Dead traditions - Dead naturally brings me to 'dead and gone' - where as they are still being transmitted but have lost their meaning. I think corrupted, lost in translation ....
Lost traditions - works better for me when I've re-labelled dead traditions as corrupted (or another better word that hasn't jumped to me yet).
For those that like this topic, the fiction book The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August is probably worth reading.