Epistemic Enclaves

Friday 31 May 2024

Nick Nielsen
10 min readJun 3, 2024
If you live in a bubble — and most of us do — your knowledge is not representative of the wider world.

Whether or not we want to explicitly acknowledge it, we know that there are many echo chambers in the world, both large and small. Within these echo chambers, shared values and shared interpretations of history prevail, while these shared values and shared interpretations of history are harder to come by outside echo chambers. Of course it is tendentious of me to use a term like “echo chamber,” which carries a negative connotation; I could just as well call them bubbles, as in, “so-and-so doesn’t even know that he’s living in a bubble.” This is a topic of frequent comment today because of the elaborate bubbles individuals and communities build around themselves through their information consumption habits.

This phenomenon is not limited to news and social media, but extends deep into academia and mainstream scholarship. We would like to believe that there is some common core of reality to which we can all assent, but even this is rarely true. In history, we would like to believe that there is a common set of events that we can agree took place and that this is the skeleton of history, even if we acknowledge that different valuations will be attached to one and the same event. We accept, even if we do not like, that these radically different valuations are attached to the same events, and we accept this as a political reality that individuals who belong to one political camp will have a shared set of values that confers an axiological structure upon events, while another political camp has a different axiological structure that it places on events. At least, most of the time, the events are in common. We might, for example, agree on the date of the Battle of Gettysburg, but disagree over the meaning and the significance of the battle, or of Pickett’s Charge, and so on. Even this minimal criterion of shared events with different interpretations is at present beginning to break down, but I’m not going to focus on this disintegration of a common historical reality, though I wanted to mention it as it needs to be in the background of the many considerations involved in interpretation of history, so that we keep in mind how radical the differences between communities can be.

Epistemic enclaves enforce the uniformity of knowledge internal to the enclave.

Instead of referring to these communities as echo chambers, as I did above, I’m going to call them epistemic enclaves. This drives home the point that different communities possess distinct knowledge structures, and these knowledge structures may be different only in trivial ways, but they also may differ in radical ways. Also, I assume that there is a variable degree of overlap between epistemic enclaves, so that some enclaves very nearly coincide, while other enclaves are very near disjoint, while most fall into a more-or-less gray area with some shared knowledge and some knowledge that is not shared. Here I am using “knowledge” loosely to include different meanings and different valuations. This promiscuous usage is intended to capture all manner of differences among epistemic enclaves. Epistemic enclaves are formed by shared stories, and stories are not an agglomeration of facts or beliefs about facts, but facts laden with meaning and value. To alter the meaning or the value is to alter the fact, and therefore to alter the knowledge structure. This is what I want to capture.

The stories we have of societies entire are histories, and histories are often a matter of contention. Often every ethnic group has its own history, as carefully tended as past grudges. Indeed, many of these intensely communal histories consist of little more than a catalog of grudges that a given community has of other communities it has encountered throughout its history as a community. Again, we would like to believe that there is a larger story, a larger history, that can unify diverse groups into some larger historical entity, like a nation-state or a kingdom or such like, and sometimes this is true, while other times it is not. One of the problems here is our dishonest use of political language. This is especially the case with “empire,” which today is almost exclusively a term of abuse. Because it is a term of abuse, we only use it when we want to convey a negative valuation of a political structure. This is makes it difficult to recognize de facto empires, though we implicitly acknowledge that there are de facto empires. For many years now, for many decades, it has been commonplace to refer to a de facto American empire, although the US does not have a de jure imperial political structure.

What is an empire? The paradigm cases from the ancient world aren’t very helpful for identifying or understanding empires in the modern world. The term has been eclipsed by its associations.

The existence or non-existence of empires might be taken to be a fact about which different epistemic enclaves disagree, but since the word carries such a strong negative connotation, the fact gets obscured by the valuation. This is unfortunate, because de facto political empires are an important part of the political mixture of the contemporary political scene. What characterizes an empire is an agglomeration of peoples held together by political and military force (holding, with Clausewitz, that war is the extension of politics by other means). A non-imperial political entity is understood to have some basis of cohesion in addition to, or instead of, mere force. In an empire, subject peoples are kept within the political structure by force, or the threat of force, and each maintains their separate history, with no presumption that other subject peoples within the same empire will share their history. They are forced to share a common empire, but they choose not to identify with the empire, but with their parochial history. Each community is an epistemic enclave with its own history.

One of the sore points that occurs repeatedly with empires is with education. An imperial system will dictate, under threat of force, that all children in the empire will attend an official school, in which lessons will be given in the official language, using official textbooks, and official maps. Often the language employed in the school is not the language that the children speak at home, the history lessons differ from the parochial histories of the epistemic enclave, and the maps may have different place names and different borders. Just as an empire will try to impose a common language, an empire will also often impose preferred place names. These need not be complete fabrications. A great deal of plausible deniability can be derived from recurring to some particular set of historical place names that reflect a preferred linguistic and geographical milieu — in other words, an epistemic enclave in time — that is flattering to the empire and its ruling elites. As I noted above, there are many histories available, and an empire can pick the history that best serves its purposes and so give a veneer not only of factuality to its claims, but also the authority of tradition.

The kind of educational institutions determine the kind of civilization, and the kind of civilzation determines the kind of educational institutions.

Education is at the core of civilization; it is the vehicle that conveys tradition from one generation to the next, and therefore secures the continuity of that tradition. But education can be of many kinds. The children of subject peoples living in an empire will quickly learn that the history they hear at home differs from the history they hear in school. There are several familiar coping strategies for the dilemma imposed. One can draw a sharp distinction between home and school, living two lives, a double life, as it were, one parochial life based on the home, and another imperial life based on the school. Or one can choose one life over the other, sneering at and deriding the rejected option. And it isn’t always the home that wins this battle, though it usually is. The empire represents a connection to the wider world of wealth and influence. Children no less than adults can be ambitious and sense an opportunity. A climber may sense in an imperial school an opportunity to lift himself out of his parochial life, perhaps extending his education by going to the imperial capital for his university education, hoping never to return to his dusty backwater, or, if he returns, to do so as an imperial official, now himself carrying the threat of force that is the writ of empire.

All this may sound rather strange to my American readers, but it happens all over the world. I have spoken to Filipinos who learned Tagalog in school but who speak the language of their home island at home, and to indigenous people in South America who learned Spanish in school but who speak Quechua at home, and of course all throughout eastern Europe during the Soviet period, Russian was the second language taught everywhere. Party-approved textbooks had the implicit imprimatur of Moscow. Today, in the age of the de facto American empire, it is English that is taught everywhere as the second language, though one could argue that this is done for economic reasons rather than being the expression of any imperial project. In the case of the Philippines and Tagalog (or Indonesia and Bahasa), and the fragmented parochial communities of rural Latin America in relation to Spanish, the nation-state is a kind of imperial project that attempts to remake a given social milieu in the image of a nation-state in a world in which the nation-state is the only acceptable political structure. (The few city-states still in existence, like Singapore, are grandfathered in to the nation-state system.) We call political structures nation-states that are manifestly not nation-states in the same way that we refuse to call empires empires.

The language, textbooks, maps, and even the architecture of a school convey an unspoken message.

Our apparent taxonomy of the political structure of the world is a relic of a particular epistemic enclave. State structure is not the fact that we commonly believe it to be, often being more the imposition of a template than the organic expression of what is actually happening on the ground. Epistemic enclaves resist their assimilation to a quasi-imperial project, though not uniformly or all with the same success. The world is a patchwork in which top-down imposition is sometimes terrifyingly effective, and sometimes laughably ineffective.

For decades futurists have written about world government, but this has been seen as just another futurist pipe dream. I’ve written blog posts against the idea (probably pointless, I know), and I personally know sincere advocates of the idea of world government. This is almost an entirely separate beast from the slow and gradual encroachment that is making the next imperial project a de facto world government through the cooperation of elites. It has become a familiar talking point, explicitly announced by at least one speaker at Davos (Ngaire Woods), that elites across national boundaries now trust each other more than ever — and their populations trust the elites less than ever. The disconnect between the elite ruling class and everyone else is becoming a matter of nearly disjoint epistemic enclaves in which the contending factions do not have a common base of knowledge and therefore lack a common basis of communication.

Ngaire Woods: “The good news is the elites across the world trust each other more and more, so we can come together and design and do beautiful things together. The bad news is that in every single country they were polling, the majority of people trusted their elite less. So, we can lead, but if people aren’t following, we’re not going to get to where we want to go.”

The capture of educational institutions, however, is nearly complete. This is no surprise. Educational institutions have for decades been the training ground for the managerial elites. As these managerial elites emerge from the institutions, and some of them return to run these institutions, the educational institutions are in a very tight spiral of self-reference. They constitute an epistemic enclave that is very nearly hermetically sealed off from the rest of the world, certainly resistant to any reform, and possibly beyond the threshold of reform. Since the capture of educational institutions hasn’t taken the vulgar form of past empires by imposing a uniform language or a uniform textbook, there is still plausible deniability for those entrenched in these institutions that they represent, but no one outside these institutions is fooled by this plausible deniability. In this case, plausible deniability coincides with self-deception.

I wrote above that educational institutions are the core of civilizations. What is being passed along in educational institutions today is not the tradition of any ethnic group, but the luxury beliefs of ruling elites. Those who attend these institutions may go on to join the elites, or they may become counter-elites in the sense that Turchin gives to this term, or they may engage in any of the coping strategies I mentioned above in negotiating some compromise between the tradition that the individual carries and the elite tradition being manufactured in these educational institutions.

Our symbols of education are buildings and desks and chalkboards, but the soul of education is people, ideas, and community. If you’re not one of those people, or you don’t share the ideas, and if you aren’t part of community, it doesn’t really matter if you’re in the building and sitting at a desk.

There are too many moving parts to confidently predict the outcome. Business and industry have an enormous stake in keeping the present institutions intact and in place, but there is a limit to which any society can sustain the disjoint epistemic enclaves of elites and the working class. Also, it is not likely that the same outcome will take shape in geographically distinct regions. I don’t expect, for example, that this tension will play out the same in Europe as it does in North America.

This newsletter is not the newsletter I sat down to write. For one thing, it’s all prologue. I want to make a larger point with the argument I have started here, but as this point is unfolding in my mind it is growing, and I can’t realistically fit it into a single newsletter. So I hope to take up this thread again in another newsletter to come, in which it will (hopefully) be more obvious as to why I favor the term “epistemic enclaves” and what the larger implications are of there being epistemic enclaves. Here I have laid it out almost as a political construct, but that’s not what’s essential to the idea.

There is a limit to the internal disconnects that any society can sustain.