When do you need traditions? – A hypothesis

[epistemic status: speculation about domains I have little contact with, and know little about]

I’m rereading Samo Burja’s draft, Great Founder Theory. In particular, I spent some time today thinking about living, dead, and lost traditions and chains of Master-Apprenticeship relationships.

It seems like these chains often form the critical backbone of a continuing tradition (and when they fail, the tradition starts to die). Half of Nobel winners are the students of other Noble winners.

But it also seems like there are domains that don’t rely, or at least don’t need to rely on the conveyance of tacit knowledge via Master-Appreticeship relationships.

For instance, many excellent programmers are self-taught. It doesn’t seem like our civilization’s collective skill in programming depends on current experts passing on their knowledge to the next generation via close in-person contact. As a thought experiment, if all current programers disappeared today, but the computers and educational materials remained, I expect we would return to our current level of collective programing skill within a few decades.

In contrast, consider math. I know almost nothing about higher mathematics, but I would guess that if all now-living mathematicians disappeared, they’ed leave a lot of math, but progress on the frontiers of mathematics would halt, and it would take many years, maybe centuries, for mathematical progress to catch up to that frontier again. I make this bold posit on the basis of the advice I’ve heard (and I’ve personally verified) that learning from tutors is way more effective than learning just from textbooks, and that mathematicians do track their lineages.

In any case, it doesn’t seem like great programers run in lineages the way that Nobel Laureates do.

This is in part because programming in particular has some features that lends itself to autodidactictry: in particular, a novice programer gets clear and immediate feedback: his/her code either compiles or it doesn’t. But I don’t think this is the full story.

Samo discusses some of the factors that determine this difference in his document: for instance, traditions in domains that provide easy affordance for “checking work” against the territory  (such as programming) tend to be more resilient.

But I want to dig into a more specific difference.


A domain of skill entails some process that when applied, produces some output.

Gardening is the process, fruits are the output. Carpentry (or some specific construction procedure) is the process, the resulting chair is the output.  Painting is the process, the painting is the output.

To the degree that the output is or embodies the generating process, master-apprenticeship relationships are less necessary.

It’s a well trodden trope that a program is the programmer’s thinking about a problem. (Paul Graham in Holding a Program in One’s Head: “Your code is your understanding of the problem you’re exploring.“) A comparatively large portion of a programmer’s thought process is represented in his/her program (including the comments). A novice programer, looking at a program written by a master, can see not just what a well-written program looks like, but also, to a large degree, what sort of thinking produces a well-writen program. Much of the tacit knowledge is directly expressed in the final product.

Compare this to say, a revolutionary scientist. A novice scientist might read the papers of elite groundbreaking science, and the novice might learn something, but so much of the process – the intuition that the topic in question was worth investigating, the subtle thought process that led to the hypothesis, the insight of what experiment would elegantly investigate that hypothesis – are not encoded in the paper, and are not legible to the reader.

I think that this is a general feature of domains. And this feature is predictive of the degree to which skill in a given domain relies strongly on traditions of Master- Apprenticeship.

Other examples:

I have the intuition, perhaps false (are there linages of award-winning novelist the way there are linages of Nobel laureates?), that novelists mostly do not learn their craft in apprenticeships to other writers. I suggest that writing is like programing: largely self-taught, except in the sense that one ingests and internalizes large numbers of masterful works. But enough of the skill of writing great novels is contained in the finished work that new novelists can be “trained” this way.

What about Japanese wood-block printing? From the linked video, it seems as if David Bull received about an hour of instruction in wood carving once every seven years or so. But those hours were enormously productive for him. Notably, this sort of wood-carving is a step removed from the final product: one carves the printing block, and then uses the block to make a print. Looking at the finished block, it seems, does not sufficiently convey the techniques used for creating the block. But on top of that the block is not the final product, only an intermediate step. The novice outside of an apprenticeship may only ever see the prints of a master-piece, not the blocks that make the prints.

Does this hold up at all?

That’s the theory. However, I can come up with at least a few counter proposals and confounding factors:

Countertheory: The dominating factor is the age of the tradition. Computer Science is only a few decades old, so recreating it can’t take more than a few decades. Let it develop for a few more centuries (without the advent of machine intelligence or other transformative technology), and the Art of Programming will have progressed so far that it does depend on Master/Apprentice relationships, and the loss of all living programers would be as much as a hit as the loss of all living mathematicians.

This doesn’t seem like it explains novelists, but maybe “good writing” is mostly a matter of fad? (I expect some literary connoisseurs would leap down my throat at that. In any case, it doesn’t seem correct to me.)

Confounder: economic incentive: If we lost all masters of Japanese wood-carving, but there was as much economic incentive for the civilization to remaster it as there would be for remastering programming, would it take any longer? I find that dubious.

Why does this matter? 

Well for one thing, if you’re in the business of building traditions to last more than a few decades, it’s pretty important to know when you will need to institute close-contact lineages.

Separately, this seem relevant whenever one is hoping to learn from dead masters.

Darwin surely counts among the great scientific-thinkers. He successfully abstracted out a fundamental structuring principle of the natural world. As someone interested in epistemology, it seems promising to read Darwin, in order to tease out how he was thinking. I was previously planning to read the Origins of Species. Now, it seems much more fruitful to read Darwin’s notebooks, which I expect to contain more of his process than his finished works do.




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