Gradualism is an important concept in epistemology which most people are confused about. It does not mean "go slow". It isn't related to coasting. Gradualism is a philosophy term, but people mix it up with the non-technical meaning.

People mistakenly assume gradualism refers to a compromise in which speed is sacrificed for steady progress. And people assume that gradualists rely on cultural traditions more because they're changing less.

I'll explain that gradualism is actually the objectively best method and doesn't involve any compromise or sacrifice. Nor does gradualism provide any excuse for sticking with bad or refuted ideas.

Gradualism is the most effective method of reform and change. So gradualists are actually able to rely on traditional knowledge the least because you are using the best way to make changes.

Gradualism is not some kind of tradeoff or option-among-several-reasonable-alternatives.

Let's look at biological evolution to illustrate.

What sort of genetic mutation rates per generation work well?

A) 50%

B) 0.001%

C) 0.000000000000000000000000001%

(These numbers are illustrations, not exact.)

The answer is B. If the mutation rate is too high then existing valuable knowledge gets destroyed too much. If the mutation rate is high, then "replication" isn't really replication, it's just making something kinda maybe similar. Replication needs to be replication to high precision for evolution to actually work well. The error rate needs to be very low.

And if the mutation rate is too low, then progress is very, very slow. Basically, nothing happens. Some mutation is needed for any change. There is a sweet spot for the frequency (and severity) of mutations which is most effective for evolution to create knowledge.

These options could be labelled something like:

A) reckless, destructive overeager rushing

B) gradualism

C) basically stasis

When you look at it like this, you can see the answer is gradualism. And there's no tradeoffs. Gradualism just works better. This is the philosophical perspective. In this sense, gradualism is the objectively right and best approach.

So there is this logic of epistemology (which works by evolution) where you need like over 99% preservation and 1% change in order to best make progress. Views which see it in this way are called "gradualist" because it's mostly preservation with a little change. It's nothing like 50/50 preservation/change or 1/99 preservation/change, it's heavily oriented towards preservation.

This maximizes progress! It's not going slow, it's going as fast as actually works. Trying to rush and making errors at a higher rate doesn't help anything. It doesn't get you correct answers faster. There are no shortcuts.

Gradualism is the method of creating knowledge which offers the conditions needed for evolution. That's a really good thing because evolution is the only known method of creating knowledge.


The word "gradualism" has some other meanings like going step by step instead of trying to do 20 steps at once. (This one is somewhat contextual, there could be some emergencies or situations with very little to lose where you rushing ahead makes more sense. When people think they have such a situation, they're frequently wrong.)

Going step by step isn't a compromise. It gives you the best opportunity to identify mistakes quickly and undo a step. When one rushes ahead, they may have to deal with several errors at once, or have more changes they need to undo. It's most effective to keep errors manageable and under control. And if something turns out easy, no problem. You can do steps one by one but do each one quickly. You don't have to try to skip steps to go fast.

Gradualism also has to do with preferring to do reversible steps first. Try a few things that are less risky before making more permanent changes. Gradualism involves making it easier to back out of your changes if they're mistaken. That's a good thing to pay attention to and place value on.


In conclusion, "gradualism" is a philosophy word which expresses a view on how knowledge is created. It doesn't mean going slow, it's not optional, it summarizes the only way to create knowledge.

And gradualism doesn't limit the speed you make progress. Biological evolution would go faster if animals grew up and had kids quicker. Human learning can go faster, too, if you do the steps faster. The only limit on your speed is your skill to do each step in the learning process correctly.

We're all fallible. We often make mistakes. Gradualism helps organize our actions and learning to deal with this. It's easier to check small changes for errors than large changes. This is about how learning is structured – piecemeal change instead of revolutionary – not about time.

By Elliot Temple, Dec 2015 | Blog |

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