On the Loss and Preservation of Knowledge

by | March 8, 2018

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

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.

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.