The Epistemology of Traditionalists, Modernists, and Progressives

In his recent book Conscious Leadership, John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods, lays out the three major worldviews prominent in American culture today. They are Traditionalists, Modernists, and Progressives. I can’t do justice to his description here, so I would highly recommend picking up the book and reading it for yourself. The section is at the end when he is talking about cultural intelligence.

Even if you haven’t read the chapter, I hope you’ll get something out of this post. Though again, I highly recommend reading it to get an idea of the worldviews.

Note: I use the word “epistemology” because it’s the closest word in the English lexicon I could find. The word might be thought of as “The logic of how we think”. I’m not entirely comfortable with it though; calling it an epistemology might imply it is more a science & logic than simply an instinctive mode of thought. A better word might be epistimodality (a word I just made up).

So what are these ways of thinking?

Traditionalists put weight on received knowledge. The the culture, the church, the Western or Eastern tradition, the folk traditions, the rulings of common law and the lessons of history, broadly conceived, guide them.

Modernist put weight on objective, “scientific” knowledge. A single scientific paper is worth a thousand traditions, so to speak. They seek objective truth and willingly disregard traditions, feelings, and even old paradigms if the data don’t fit.

Progressives put a high weight on subjective knowledge, and will quickly reject the seemingly object as overwrought. They will focus on your (and their) lived experience.

Relationships of the modes

The relationship between the three modalities, as I see it, is as follow.

Traditionalists see modernists as irreverent, cold, and almost lifeless, stripping away meaning and perspective. The traditionalist might say “You can’t just strip things down to logic, as ‘logic’ can mislead you; life is more than the sum of it’s parts.”

Modernists see traditionalist as narrow-minded, dogmatic and incurious. Science is the road to discovery, and if it destroys some dearly held beliefs, that is the price we pay for an advancing civilization.

Traditionalist and progressives have a more complicated relationship. Both look askance at objectivity. Is objectivity even possible? As the famous (or infamous) post-modernist Jacques Derrida said, “There is nothing without context.” They differ in how they deal with this lack of objectivity. Traditionalists might say “What our history has given us works for reasons beyond us” whereas the progressives would say “We must look inward for answers.”

What about progressives and modernists? Progressives are seen as touchy feely, trying to introduce feelings into questions of fact. Modernists are seen as ignoring nuances in the lived human experience which might undermine the “truth” they claim is so obvious.

Closing thoughts

My default modality is most certainly modernist. Mackey explores the idea of a sort of fusionism between the three, which is fair. But I think when thinking of each as more a modality than a epistemology, fusion is more difficult. They aren’t irreconcilable in a Kierkigardian sense, but even so they aren’t amenable to each other.

What is the takeaway? As I see it, understanding these three modalities can help you relate or resonate with people more easily. Similar to why we learn the four personality types, the “love languages”, or the extrovert/introvert divide.

Approach a traditionalist with a focus on received knowledge. Approach a modernist with a structure, facts, and experiments which support your view. Approach a progressive with a call to see your perspective, as a fellow being with a fully lived experience.

Are we overreacting?

People ask me my opinion about Covid-19. I’ve thought about it a lot, looked at statistics, read experts, laymen, accounts from the afflicted and the healthcare workers, philosophers, & mathematicians. And I’ve come to a conclusion. Covid-19 is a bad thing. I’m against it. 0 out of 10 stars. Would not recommend.

The truth is, it doesn’t take much courage to note Covid-19 is an unmitigated bad, like cancer or terrorism. Because it is. The world would be better off without it. It causes deaths for innocent people. So we try to stop these things, at high cost.

Are we overreacting? It’s easy, especially in the early stages of a crisis like this, to think so. Why? Simple numbers to fool us. “Why, more people are killed by the flu!” But things aren’t so simple.

An analog might be a fire. If you have a lit candle that is knocked over and sets fire to your window curtain, you drop what you are doing and put out the fire.

If it’s as simple as patting out the fire, great. If you have to dump a giant bucket of water on it, you don’t worry about staining the carpet when the alternative is your house burning down. Exponential growth is a beast you don’t want to mess with.

What you don’t do is say to yourself “I burned my toast this morning more than that candle has burned the curtain so far, no reason to worry” and continue to sip your coffee.

If the flu kills 50,000 Americans a year, Covid-19 has the potential to kill 10-30x that. People’s lives are on the line, and there is no cost too great to save them.

(Side note, I use numbers for Americans not because Americans are somehow intrinsically more important, but because they’re easier to guage numbers for than for the entire world.)

For many, that settles it. If it seems like we’re overreacting, that’s fine. It’s better than letting the problem get out of control. The answer to the question “Are we overreacting?” is a resounding “No.”

Let’s ask ourselves one more question; what would it take to come to the conclusion that we have overreacted? If your response to this question is “But we haven’t overreacted, end of discussion.” that’s fine. You are safely within the consensus, and no one can fault you. But the question isn’t “Have we overreacted?” the question is what it would take to come to the conclusion that we have.

As outlined at the beginning of this post, simple metrics won’t do. Had it taken a billion dollars to stop the spread from the first carrier of Covid-19 to the second, it would have been worth it. A single additional infection doesn’t matter that much in the grand scheme of things now, but at that early stage, it obviously would have.

We don’t sacrifice trillions of dollars to save the tens of thousands who die of the flu each year. Yet nearly all the same moralizing arguments I see applied to Covid-19 apply equally to the flu. (I’m not saying Covid-19 is the same as the flu. Don’t @ me with that.) “How can you compare dollars to lives?”, “Economists can only crunch numbers, but each life is precious”, “We can’t let greed get in the way of saving lives.” Etc.

At first blush, the answer is “But Covid-19 is more dangerous”. True, but a non-sequiter objection to the moral arguments raised above. Each life is precious, whether they are taken by the flu or Covid-19. You can’t compare dollars to lives, so why not shut down the economy to stop next year’s flu season? Sure, it would cost trillions, but you can’t compare dollars to lives. After all, you can’t let greed get in the way of saving lives.

“But Covid-19 is more dangerous” you might object, more loudly this time. Still non-sequiter to the moral objections above. For “Covid-19 is more dangerous” to hold water as an argument, you must do comparisons. With numbers. Weigh costs (in economic terms) to lives of both the Flu and Covid-19. You may know the conclusion you have come to, “Shut it all down for Covid-19, but not for the flu.” But you can’t claim to have come to that conclusion logically without admitting you are making these comparisons the moral arguments would forbid. Tisk tisk.

It’s nearly impossible to capture a full thought

I’ve started and stopped writing more pieces than I can recall. I usually stop writing them because I realize I’m not going to be able to fully express what I’m thinking in less than several thousand words.

(Don’t worry, this post doesn’t fall prey to that problem.)

Amongst those thousands of words, it’s easy to lose elegence along the way. Heck, it’s easy to stumble with your words when you only use a few hundred.

I think it’s hard to accept that you’ll have to leave behind many of the nuances you think of along the way. As you’re trying to take your reader on a journey, the end of each sentence feels like a fork in the road. Perhaps you’re just taking them sight seeing, and it doesn’t matter which fork you take. More likely, you have a destination in mind. In either case, whether it matters which fork you take or not, you can only take one.

Occasionally you can circle back around to a point you couldn’t make before, but you musn’t terry. And you can only do so so many times. Preferably, you come back to the previous point to boost or complete another. But generally, your writing must continue on in a single, inextricably linear line.

Or not. If you’re like me, a choppy, non-sequiture filled piece may suite you just fine. What’s my point? Writing is hard. But you probably already knew that. Writing with a good balance of brevity and elegeance is very hard. But you probably knew that too.

I’m back, back to basics

I had an issue with my old website which I didn’t feel like fixing at the time. So I got rid of it, and here I am again.