In praise of the sage

by Dorian Minors

July 19, 2021

Analects  |  Newsletter

Excerpt: Knowledge is a peculiar concept. It's a form of belief, really. We believe in things and some things that we believe in, we feel so sure about that we call it knowledge. This begs the question, of course, what kinds of things make us so certain? Why do we accept the scientific method, but shun tradition and experience?


Our culture spurns the 'guru' as a charletan and the traditionalist as a relic. Legitimate knowledge comes from reasoned observation, not intuition. Except that this is a lie that we tell ourselves and which blinds us to how useful the sage can be.

Knowledge is a peculiar concept. It’s a form of belief, really. We believe in things and some things that we believe in, we feel so sure about that we call it knowledge.

This begs the question, of course, what kinds of things make us so certain? If we put aside, for the moment, the human capacity for error—our biases and blindnesses—what are the legitimate ways of gaining knowledge?

In the modern ‘western’ world, the paths to knowledge typically revolve around some form of reasoned experience. As Bill Mollison put it:

Scientific method is one of the ways to know about the real world… Observation and contemplative understanding is another. We can find out many things… by timing, measuring, and observing them

One might say we have acquired something of an obsession with the scientific method in particular. A notable characteristic of recent news articles and culture pieces is the ever-present terms “the science says” or “the experts say”. Militant positions on the production of scientific knowledge are often celebrated, particularly when posed against the apparently corrupting influence of spiritual practice. Richard Dawkins is a convenient example, the subject of countless undergraduate debates:

Not only is science corrosive to religion; religion is corrosive to science. It teaches people to be satisfied with trivial, supernatural non-explanations and blinds them to the wonderful real explanations that we have within our grasp. It teaches them to accept authority, revelation and faith instead of always insisting on evidence.

There is, of course, a certain anti-intellectualism that pervades our political landscape, but by and large our modern culture is a culture that reveres science and reflective understanding as the only legitimate routes to knowledge production.

There are other ways of knowing.

John Dewey conceptualised three kinds of ‘experience’ (III, p. 70). Two we are familiar with, taking our earlier words from Mollison:

Scientific method is one of the ways to know about the real world…

Dewey noted that one method of gaining experience was the empirical philosophy of the Enlightment period. “Empiricism was thus an ideal… associated with the eighteenth-century concept of progress and the opening up of vistas of the infinate perfectability of humanity”. From the hands of those like Locke, Hume, and John Stuart Mills, the experiment became the paradigmatic method of gaining true scientific knowledge—the marriage of ideas about a natural order with the personal experience of it. Experience based in scientific understanding.

However, Dewey takes great care to outline two fundamental flaws in this philosophy of knowledge production.

First, that then, as now, “[t]heir philosophy was intended to be, and was used as, an instrument of criticism for dissolving institutions then dominant, ecclesiastical and political.” That “[i]ts power as a dissolvant of tradition and doctrine was much greater than any impetus it could give to construction”.

For this, he highlights the French revolution which “served as a convenient symbol of what that philosophy would come to if it were allowed to go on unchecked”. Of a similar fashion are critiques of Bentham’s ‘heartless’ utilitarianism. Scientific empiricism alone leaves us cold, and indeed produced the spiritualistic, rationalistic reaction in German philosophy from Kant on which saught a guarantee against the “destructive, dissolvant tendency of empiricism”.

Dewey’s second flaw was its blindness to the imaginative character at its core. In particular “for all experiment involves regulated activity” it is “directed by ideas, by thought.” Sometimes, as in “say, physics, highly elaborate, intricate schemes of thought are here involved, beyond the reach of any sense or form of observation”. And thus “theories and hypotheses in scientific experimentation and organisation… have a free, imaginative quality that no direct sensation or observation can have”.

Each of these characteristics we can see play out on the modern stage. The absence of construction is built into the paradigm—we do not prove with science, but merely disprove. This basic feature is regularly corrupted by the thoughtless misapplication of the method. The scientific method, as a system of belief, can be ritualised like any other.

This leads Dewey on to his second method of knowing. In the words again of Mollison:

Observation and contemplative understanding is another.

Dewey then proposes another mode of experience as a curative to the destructive impulses of the scientific philosophy.

His work incorporates the value of the experimental method—the use of hypothesis to direct observations. In particular, he marks out the kind of pragmatic understanding of William James. In the words of James’ pragmatist colleague, Charles Sanders Peirce:

a meaningful conception must have some sort of experiential “cash value,” must somehow be capable of being related to some sort of collection of possible empirical observations under specifiable conditions

Dewey favours an appreciation of the consequences of ones personal actions, and the incorporation of those into knowledge. He re-emphasises the value of the ‘truth’ in first-hand experience over the abstract skepticism of empiricism. In particular, the emphasis lies in those problem-based experiences that initiate reflection.

His opposition to the scientific method lies in his recognition that our observations are necessarily limited by our biology:

From the physiological standpoint it is quite obvious that sensations are part of mechanisms of behaviour and have a direct connection with the motor apparatus… they remain… stimuli except when trained connections come into play, and in that case, they become conscious sensations or sensory qualities.

This particular notion, in fact, underpins one of the core branches of modern cognitive science—the pragmatic turn. Knowledge is something embodied because it cannot be divorced from our experience. Dewey goes on to note that:

In many respects we are getting much nearer Aristotle’s psychology on this particular point…

Which is a very interesting note indeed. Dewey’s curative mode of knowledge production is, as he notes himself, “in development”. But he poses it not only as a curative for the scientific method, but also of a third way of knowing. This is what he refers to by “Aristotle’s psychology”.

The third way of knowing is, in fact, a way of knowing that the ‘western’ world is terribly afraid of, Dewey included. Given that Dewey ends up in a place he claims is quite close to it should make us wonder why we find it so concerning.

The third way of knowing and the birth of the guru

In other places and in other times, there is a kind of knowledge production that makes the ‘west’ sneer. In these cultures, as Dewey identified, there is an emphasis on culturally transmitted ‘insight’ or intuition. According to him this is the classic Greek notion which:

identified experience with the beliefs and skills that were due to custom and consolidated memory

One form of this is that of tradition. Here we have the wisdom of the ages, knowledge that is true because it has always been true.

Another form is that seen more commonly amoung eastern and otherwise contemplative practices. A veneration of those insights that come from developing a certain sensitivity to the world through spiritual practice. Zen, Yoga, even modern and secular ‘mindfulness meditation’ practices all share this feature. Indeed, these features are so robust a model of it lies at the core of modern cognitive science.

More alien still is a corollary of this belief about knowledge production.

A historical emphasis on the kind of insight one develops from spiritual practice leads naturalistically to the conclusion that some people will be more skilful at this than others. That a legitimate source of knowledge is the testimony or revelation of another, based on her character and experience. And here is the realm of the guru, or the sage.

The figure of the sage is a figure shrouded in darkness. Our collective nightmares of the charismatic leader have made us, in the main, very skeptical of these kinds of figures and the knowledge they purport to have.

In a similar way, cultural knowledge production around tradition creates leaders of the traditional ways, borne of structures like feudalism or patrimonialism. These figures too make our collective consciousness uneasy.

Weber describes these two figures as the charismatic and the traditional ‘authority’, emphasising that the ideal endstate of this kind of leadership should culminate in a leader of ‘rational-legal’ authority—figures of statehood and planned bureaucracy.

In praise of the sage

These figures might make us uneasy, but our modern ‘western’ landscape is littered with them. Polemic politics creates populist leaders one would struggle to call ‘rational-legal authorities’. And from celebrities to influencers we come under the spell of our gurus.

Not all of these modern ‘sages’ are uncomfortable. The deterioration of media culture has us seek out journalistic figures we can trust, on Patreon or Spotify or in our RSS feeds. Even the most skeptical of us will admit that we are comfortable with the idea of the doctor who “can’t quite put her finger” on something that seems wrong to her, and thus acquiesce to more testing.

This is a sensible position. Aristotle, in his Metaphysics noted that one should pay careful attention to the beliefs of people with great experience because:

In human beings experience comes about from memory; for many memories of the same thing bring about the power of one experience (p. 689)

For example the “greenness” of something green or the “catness” of a particular cat. Through the ‘memories’ or experiences of a thing, we learn something about its character. The more experiences, the more we know. But this kind of knowledge about the world is implicit:

For men of experience know that the thing is so, but do not know why, while the others know the “why” and the “cause”’ (p. 690)

What Aristotle is telling us is that knowledge isn’t just something that one has, it’s also something that one is:

we are not rendered any more capable of healthy and vigorous action by knowing the science of medicine or of physical training (Nicomachean Ethics p. 365)

The key is that knowledge should be acquired in the shape of the knowledge itself:

We learn an art or craft by doing the things that we have to do when we have learnt it. For instance, men become builders by building houses, harpers by playing on the harp. Similarly we become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by doing brave acts’ (p. 73)

Aristotle here is stressing that the form of knowing is more important than the product. That a body of knowledge must be connected to human activity and the structure of the social world.

In retrospect this is obvious. But perhaps less obvious is the great value that comes in the structure of the social world. Experiencing the world without direction on how would be absurd. How can we be expected to find the path to knowledge without being shown the way first? In that, we must be guided along the path using wisdom that has been set down before us. And thus:

It is therefore not of small moment whether we are trained from childhood in one set of habits or another; on the contrary it is of very great, or rather of supreme, importance

For Aristotle, through training or habituation, the ingestion of cultural wisdom and the subsequent experience of it in the world, one may develop the ability to act from a place of intuition. Not because we necessarily know why something is the case, but because we have acquired the experiences simply to know. We have gained some kind of implicit sensitivity to the world around us based on our embodiment of it.

More to the point, even those kinds of problem-based reflective experiences that Dewey favoured should be placed within this sphere of knowledge:

therefore collections of [knowledge] may be serviceable to students capable of studying them critically, and judging what measures are valuable or the reverse… But those who pursues such compilations without possessing a trained faculty cannot be capable of judging them correctly…’ (pp. 641–643)

Aristotle is telling us that even the ability to rationally deliberate—to critically analyse and reflect—should be cultivated as a part of our habituated attitude toward the world. That it should be developed as a product and part of our disposition towards action. To know without doing is to only understand part, and to know without training in the value of the knowledge is to know less still.


And so we are left in a place that is sensible indeed. Any person with great experience, informed by culture and their practice of it, should be a fairly reasonable source of information. It is merely another set of credible beliefs like the belief in the power of personal reflection and the belief in the power of the scientific method.

Here, we simply recognise that with experience comes a kind of sensitivity to things, helped along by the directional influence of cultural practice and tradition. These things can’t always, perhaps, be articulated in the form of objective reasoning or rational argumentation, because to know is not always to know why. But this, I think, doesn’t invalidate their value. Rather, it seems to accentuate it.

What good is a teacher who was never instructed in the ways people learn? Or a builder with no concept of what a house should look like? How confident would we be in a fireman who never faught a fire, or a pilot who never flew?

Tradition and the sage as legitimate sources of knowledge become almost trivial when viewed this way. Our trust in embodied knowledge lies deeply underneath and obscured by the knowledge beliefs we hold about reflection and about scientific understanding. They are inextricably entwined.

Three questions then remain.

When we consider all those various states of mind the human brain can encompass, and all the experiences we have never experienced, why is it that we shy away from those cultures and authorities that claim to have knowledge that could help us?

Would we be so willing to accept populist leaders and influencers as our sages if we recognised the value of a sage?

And, how sure are we that the beliefs about knowledge we say we endorse are the ones we actually believe?

Ideologies you choose at btrmt.

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