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.