On the Loss and Preservation of Knowledge

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[Cross­posted from my Medium blog]

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? Let’s 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 situ­a­tions 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?

Tra­di­tions of Knowledge

A tra­di­tion of knowl­edge is a body of a knowl­edge that has been suc­cess­fully suc­ces­sively worked on. It is use­ful to clas­sify tra­di­tions of knowl­edge into three types: liv­ing, dead, and lost tra­di­tions.

• A liv­ing tra­di­tion of knowl­edge is a tra­di­tion in which the body of knowl­edge has been suc­cess­fully trans­ferred, i.e. passed on to peo­ple who com­pre­hend it (e.g. cryp­tog­ra­phy). Note that 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 in which the body of knowl­edge has been un­suc­cess­fully trans­ferred, i.e. its ex­ter­nal forms, its trap­pings, have been trans­ferred, but not the un­der­stand­ing of its body of knowl­edge (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 do­ing med­i­ta­tion it­self). Note that 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). 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.


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 this es­say, 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 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 com­mon signs.

Signs of tra­di­tions of knowledge

Th­ese are listed roughly in or­der from best to worst in­di­ca­tors of a liv­ing tra­di­tion:

• The pro­duc­tion of a no­table effect (e.g. pow­er­ful gen­er­als, well-bal­anced swords). It is pos­si­ble for a no­table effect to be pro­duced with­out un­der­stand­ing, for ex­am­ple by fol­low­ing a set of in­struc­tions. In prac­tice, though, the pro­duc­tion of no­table effects re­quires ac­tual un­der­stand­ing be­cause effec­tive ac­tion is too com­plex to be cap­tured in in­struc­tions.

• Shared method­ol­ogy (even if not ex­plic­itly stated)

• Shared con­cepts (even if un­der a differ­ent name)

• Shared con­cep­tual frame­work or theories

• Ex­ten­sion of the the­ory in the tra­di­tion (i.e. new ideas based on shared con­cepts)

• Master/​ap­pren­tice relationships

• Ex­plicit knowl­edge of spe­cific arguments

• Shared terminology

• Ac­cred­i­ta­tion (de­pends on qual­ity of ac­cred­i­ta­tion sys­tem)

• Refer­ences to spe­cific authors

• Fa­mil­iar­ity with a per­son’s works

• Ex­is­tence of a phys­i­cal lo­ca­tion where the tra­di­tion is os­ten­si­bly kept (e.g. a pres­ti­gious uni­ver­sity)

A Cau­tion­ary Note

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 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).

Live Traditions

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 the body of knowl­edge has been suc­cess­fully trans­ferred, i.e. passed on to peo­ple who com­pre­hend it.

Fea­tures of liv­ing traditions

Apart from the trans­fer of the tra­di­tion’s knowl­edge it­self, there are fea­tures that tra­di­tions can have that pro­mote their sur­vival. For ex­am­ple:

• Trans­fer of ver­ifi­ca­tion mechanisms, i.e. mechanisms to check the body of knowl­edge against reality

• Trans­fer of mechanisms to check the trans­ferred body of knowl­edge against the origi­nal body of knowl­edge so as to cor­rect er­rors in transmission

• Trans­fer of the gen­er­at­ing prin­ci­ples of the body of knowl­edge (which al­lows peo­ple to ver­ify, cor­rect, and ex­tend the the­ory), like the­o­riz­ing techniques

• Ex­pli­ca­tion of the gen­er­at­ing prin­ci­ples of the body of knowl­edge and trans­fer of this ex­plicit knowl­edge. This is differ­ent from trans­fer­ring the gen­er­at­ing prin­ci­ples them­selves, which must be un­der­stood im­plic­itly to be truly trans­ferred.

• The pro­duc­tion of mas­ters, as op­posed to medi­o­crities or even ex­perts. Masters are more likely to be ca­pa­ble of pre­serv­ing, ex­tend­ing, or re­con­struct­ing the tra­di­tion as nec­es­sary.

• Teach­ers that can re­li­ably as­sess whether stu­dents un­der­stand the knowl­edge, to pre­vent the Coun­terfeit Un­der­stand­ing Prob­lem, ex­plained below

• An in­sti­tu­tion ded­i­cated to keep­ing the tra­di­tion alive

• In­sti­tu­tional defenses against the takeover of the in­sti­tu­tion, e.g. a test or re­quire­ment for entry

Re­mem­ber: tra­di­tions of knowl­edge are pre­served in­ten­tion­ally. It’s hard to keep a tra­di­tion of knowl­edge al­ive.

Dead Traditions

The over­whelming odds are that tra­di­tions be­come lost or die. De­cay is the de­fault; en­tropy usu­ally pre­vails. This can hap­pen for many rea­sons, in­clud­ing:

Prob­lems re­lated to trans­fer­ring a body of knowledge

The Prob­lem of Coun­terfeit Understanding

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 ver­bal be­hav­ior, are try­ing to guess the teacher’s pass­word, 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.

There are a num­ber of sub-prob­lems that ex­ac­er­bate the prob­lem of coun­terfeit un­der­stand­ing:

The Prob­lem of Stan­dard­ized Education

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.

The Prob­lem of 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.”

The Difficulty of Rec­og­niz­ing Understanding

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.

The Lack of Aware­ness 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.

The Prob­lem of Lost Generators

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 (and the loss of some knowl­edge is prac­ti­cally un­avoid­able) or gen­er­ate new knowl­edge that builds upon the tra­di­tion. Bar­ring com­plete knowl­edge trans­fer by ev­ery gen­er­a­tion, which is ex­tremely difficult, this will re­sult in the de­cay and even­tual death of the tra­di­tion.

The Prob­lem of Syncretism

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. Syn­cretism in­di­cates a dead tra­di­tion if: (1) peo­ple are try­ing to im­port some­thing into a sys­tem that doesn’t make sense, (2) peo­ple are im­port­ing things be­cause the origi­nal tra­di­tion stopped mak­ing sense to them, or (3) if the in­sti­tu­tion which has served to trans­mit the knowl­edge has been cap­tured (see be­low).

Prob­lems re­lated to cre­at­ing an organization

The Prob­lem of Creat­ing a Sin­gle Point 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 judge­ment of one teacher at an or­ga­ni­za­tion, for ex­am­ple, can yield a whole class of stu­dents whose thought is severely dam­aged.

The Prob­lem of In­sti­tu­tional Capture

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, e.g. 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.