There may be some who disagree with me, but I take it to be true that knowledge is, to some degree, intrinsically hierarchical (the question in the title here is genuine though, if you don't think it is, persuade me it's not!) This is just to say that there are some things which cannot be known until other things before them are known. Understanding of some concepts cannot be achieved without first having understood others. In my view, this implies hierarchy.

I also take it as a general truth of Human society that in the vast majority of possible worlds, we are better off with a society that has more knowledge than a society that has less knowledge.

Human beings enter the world as babies without any knowledge, aside from basic sensory data, if that can be construed as knowledge. This implies that there are always going to be some individuals who have less knowledge than others. If our society values knowledge, as I think it should, then because of the intrinsically hierarchical nature of knowledge, those who have more knowledge are in a position of authority relative to those who have less.

Many people understand anarchy to be the absence of hierarchy (as opposed to the common 'folk' view of anarchy, which often suggests that anarchy means either chaos, or an absence of order, both of which I disagree with). If this view on anarchy (absence of hierarchy, but not necessarily absence of order) is correct, then is valuing knowledge thus incompatible with anarchy? Can the two be reconciled?

  • You're just equivocating power hierarchy with knowledge hierarchy. Sure, the two are correlated for the reasons you state in your third paragraph, but they're still not the same thing, nor are they perfectly associated. It's entirely conceivable to have a political anarchy with the hierarchical knowledge we're familiar with. If you think hierarchical knowledge and hierarchical power must be perfectly associated then just ask yourself this: who is the most powerful man in the world right now? Commented Jun 7, 2017 at 14:10
  • I'm entirely willing to acknowledge that power hierarchy and knowledge hierarchy are not the same thing. But is it not the case that the further we divorce those two hierarchies from one another the more we are implicitly saying that ignorance is just as good as knowledge? If political anarchy does not acknowledge the hierarchy of knowledge, if it does not give experts more power in making decisions, isn't that equivalent to telling the population that ignorance is just as good as knowledge? Isn't that just the attitude that has allowed the most powerful man in the world to be where he is? Commented Jun 7, 2017 at 21:17
  • You're still equivocating. Giving people with "more knowledge" a higher position in a political hierarchy has absolutely nothing to do with the hierarchy of knowledge. The fact that you have to know algebra to understand calculus suggests a hierarchical structure of knowledge. That has absolutely nothing to do with the hierarchical structure of a government. Any association you're trying to make between the two is nothing more than a poetic analogy. Your question is similar to "can the branches of a family tree grow apples?" Commented Jun 7, 2017 at 21:50
  • I'm not so sure. One of the functions of governmental hierarchy is to make decisions on public policy. The quality of the decisions that get made is arguably somewhat dependent on the knowledgeability of the people who are making the decisions. If there is no power hierarchy around that decision making process then how can we ensure that decisions of public policy are being made in light of knowledge, rather than simply a tyranny of the majority, for example? Commented Jun 7, 2017 at 22:19
  • To clarify, I'm not claiming that power hierarchy always produces knowledgeable decision makers. Plenty of people in positions of power now are incompetent. But if you restrict decision making to people who have more knowledge, that is a power hierarchy. If knowledge wasn't hierarchical, if we could just know whatever we needed to by knowing that thing, without needing to understand prior things, then there would be no basis for restricting access to a decision making process on the basis of knowledge. Commented Jun 7, 2017 at 22:46

1 Answer 1


There is a gap between the fact that at a low level knowledge is hierarchical and the notion that it is so throughout. At a relatively low height in the hierarchy, one clearly loses the ability to measure height across the structure and to define what is and what is not 'more knowledge'. From a Montessorian perspective, what is really 'a better use of horme' is what accords with the given organisms pattern of growth, and that varies across a population even in ideal circumstances.

Having intimate knowledge of Kabbalah, or of how to best use a PDP-11, does not elevate your leverage on power, unless you are in very specific circumstances. You cannot claim these do not constitute more knowledge. But you can argue we should not value them.

The basic idea that public education aims for complete coverage at a given height reflects this intuition. We want you to graduate, because we want to empower people as much as we can as long as we know we are actually empowering them. We want to raise them to the degree that they are free to make their way in whatever direction they see as 'upward' from there, knowing this is going to vary almost full circle across the population.

And this divergence begins well before that point. Classes in High School, or even in Middle School begin to be of real use only to certain people who will head in certain directions. I would contend that this is not about our system of education, but is the nature of knowledge. Even in some kind of education that fits with a goal of equality and not a traditional standard of 'excellence', this will still be the case.

I would suggest that anarchy (or even related approximations like ideal liberal democracy) is only going to be possible if you maintain access to some given height, that all of you can agree makes sense. Otherwise, given people will automatically have power given to them by accidents or parental choices that put them on the right track toward useful knowledge, even if you undermine the accumulation of power completely in other ways.

If everyone can get near that point, and build out from there, and when massive changes occur, can return to that point and choose a different orientation, then one can always see one's own direction as 'upward', and others' notions of 'upward' as 'sideways'. You can have leverage on reality of certain sorts, without absolutely differential access to control.

  • I like a lot of things about this answer, I'm not sure I understand all of it though - I've never had any involvement with Montessori, and I'm not sure what 'a better use of horme' means. I agree that there are some pieces of knowledge which are more valuable than others, and that certainly varies depending on goals and circumstances. I like the idea of 'complete coverage at a given height' though, assuming that we can find some height at which it is both possible to educate everyone, and also have everyone be capable of participating in the decisions that affect them in a knowledgeable way. Commented Jun 8, 2017 at 0:59
  • Still, I'm not sure that it entirely succeeds in reconciling the two, but perhaps that depends on just how non-hierarchical one thinks some state of affairs has to be before it qualifies for the label anarchy. I think it's an excellent start, and a good step in the right direction. I'll have to ponder it some more. I would vote this answer up, but I don't have enough reputation to do so yet. Commented Jun 8, 2017 at 1:04

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