All the way up and all the way down
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First presented at The Developing Group, 2 August, 2003

This year we will explore six aspects of the philosophical basis for Symbolic Modelling:

Multiple Perspectives
Developmental perspective
It’s happening now

These six aspects are highly interconnected and form part of a larger ‘cosmology’. Our purpose in constructing such a cosmology is to enhance your ability to facilitate others to self-model their own constructs and to evolve in ways that are aligned with their system’s natural development. Our aim is to operate out of constructs that are sufficiently flexible, open, inclusive and responsive that they enable us to:

  • minimally contaminate the client’s perceptions
  • be maximally informed by the client’s language and behaviour
  • construct a model that is maximally isomorphic with the client’s model
  • retain our own independence and integrity.

4. Levels

“Becoming familiar with the characteristics of organisational levels of metaphor landscapes means you will be able to distinguish between them, to shift your attention from one to another and to recognise how each level influences the landscape as a whole. This in turn will enhance your ability to cleanly invite clients to switch their attention within and between the four levels: symbols, relationships, patterns and pattern of organisation.”
Metaphors in Mind, p. 31

Pick almost any popular science or psychology book and somewhere the author will refer to things, ideas, processes, etc. as organised in ‘levels’. However, it is much harder to find a book that defines what levels are, or how to distinguish between. Even rarer is a description of the subjective experience of perceiving levels and moving between them.  The key to understanding levels is to get clear about what defines the relationship between them and to remember that all levels are a construct of the mind of the perceiver; they do not exist as an inherent attribute of the perceived.

About levels

While ‘levels’ is a common metaphor for arranging experience, authors also use other metaphors to describe similar distinctions:

Surface/Deep Structure
Content (Product)/Process
Nested Hierarchies
Meta States
Higher/Lower Stage/Order
Emergent Properties

As you will notice, many of these metaphors use an up-down motif.

Levels are a means of ordering and categorising experience. They are therefore usually referred to as ‘Levels of’ something:

Levels of Learning (Bateson)1
Levels of Organization (Wilber)
Levels of Abstraction (Korzybski)
Levels of Explanation/Analysis (David Marr, Vision, 1982)
Logical Levels (Russell and Whitehead)
Neurological Levels (Dilts)

We want to distinguish between these kinds of levels, and when ‘level’ is simply used to mean ‘category’, ‘scale’, ‘position’ or ‘rank’, e.g.:

Level of achievement
Level of aspiration
Level of confidence
Significance level

What distinguishes the first group from the second group is that going from one level to the next does not simply mean more/less of something. Neither does it mean just going up/down. There is a qualitative difference between the levels in the first group. The nature of whatever is perceived at each level is of a different kind; it has its own characteristics and logic.

We will be investigating the first group of levels.

Three Kinds of Levels

This topic gets even more interesting.  We have identified three different kinds of levels which are sometimes mixed up and rarely distinguished:

  1. Part/Whole
  2. Logical Inclusion
  3. Aboutness

1. Part/Whole

In Sex, Ecology, Spirituality, p.55, Ken Wilber emphasises that levels may be metaphors but they are not arbitrary:

“A level … is established by several objective criteria: by qualitative emergence (as explained by Popper); by asymmetry (or “symmetry breaks,” as explained by Prigogine and Jantsch); by an inclusionary principle (the higher includes the lower, but not vice versa, as explained by Aristotle); by developmental logic (the higher negates and preserves a lower, but not vice versa,as explained by Hegel); by a chronological indicator (the higher chronologically comes after the lower, but all that is later is not higher, as explained by St. Gregory).”

A common example of part/whole levels is:

Sub-atomic particle

The defining characteristics of a part/whole hierarchy is the higher up the levels, the greater the scope, but also the smaller the number of items.  Organs “transcend and include” cells, but there are far fewer organs than cells in the universe.  If you were to take an entire part/whole level away, then all the above levels would cease to exist.  Without cells there can be no organs, organisms or societies.

2. Logical Inclusion

Carmen Bostic St. Clair and John Grinder in Whispering in the Wind define Logical Inclusion as a hierarchical “ordering relationship specified by two properties:

Constriction – Reduced coverage under each successive partition.

Inheritability – The preservation of the set membership criteria under partition”

As always, an example makes this clearer:

Means of transport
Water craft
“The Flying Fish”

Here lower levels are defined by more specific examples of higher levels.  Once again the higher the level the more inclusive, but in this case, the higher the level the greater the number of items.  There are many more things which can be classified as a ‘means of transport’ than things that can be classified as ‘a water craft’. 

3. Aboutness

This kind of level is a feature of Michael Hall’s Meta States and refers to the human capacity to reflect on our own states of being (Hall borrows from Korzybski):

Worrying about worrying Hyper-worry
Thinking about our thinking Meta-thinking
Hate self for feeling imperfect Self-contempt
Philosophysizing about our philosophy Theory of philosophy
Reasoning about our reasoning Epistemology
Anger with being a people-pleaser Self-anger

More complicated states about states are:

I feel disgusted about getting so angry about feeling so helpless.

I feel so guilty for feeling so upset about feeling rejected by her.

Michael Hall says “When we bring one state to bear on another and apply one to another, the higher state functions as a contextual meaning or frame for the lower. … By transcending – going meta – to the first state, the meta state includes the previous state.  But it does not collapse the states.  It textures the states with the higher state” (Rapport, Spring 2003).  Whether we go up or down these levels, the experience is of a single state of mind.

Comparing The Three Kinds of Levels

If we compare the three kinds of levels specified above, we find that in each case ‘going up’ always provides more inclusively and ‘going down’ results in more exclusivity, i.e. the higher logical levels transcend and include the lower logical levels. And that each level has its own ‘logic’ or integrity.

The difference is in the number of items at each level.  With ‘part-whole’ levels, there must always be less wholes than parts.  With ‘logical inclusion’ there must always be more examples at each successive higher level.  With ‘aboutness’ there is always just one state whether you go up or down the levels.

Note that each level has an “informational effect” (Bateson) on the other levels, “the lower sets the possibilities of the higher; the higher sets the probabilities of the lower” (Wilber).  

Moving Between Levels

Words commonly used to describe a shift, or relationship between levels are:

 Up Down
 Higher Lower
 Transcend Dissolve
 Include Exclude
 Deeper Shallower
 Go meta Go mesa*

*mesa is Greek for ‘in, inside, into, within’. In a 2008 article What’s the Opposite of Meta? Joe Cheal proposed the term ‘going mesa’,

The following questions will help you to shift between levels:

1. Part/Whole

What is X a part of?            (Part to whole)
What is a part of X?            (Whole to part)

2. Logical Inclusion

What is X an example of?    (Less to more inclusive)
What is an example of X?    (More to less inclusive)

3. Aboutness

What do you know about X?  (Going meta)
What’s within X?                  (Going mesa)

Levels in a metaphor landscape

Within metaphor landscapes we can see four levels of organisation:

  • Symbols
  • Relationships between symbols
  • Patterns across these relationships
  • A pattern of organisation of the entire configuration of patterns, relationships and symbols.

Each lower level is nested within a hierarchy of higher levels; each higher level transcends and includes all lower levels. So in a landscape, a relationship is more than the sum of its component symbols — it transcends them. But without the symbols the relationship does not exist — it must include them.

A relationship is a different class of information from symbols and the same is true of the other levels.

Each level has its own properties, which are not the properties of the individual components — just as “salty” is not a property of sodium or chlorine, or of sodium chloride, but of the relationship between salt, taste buds and the nervous system.

For more about the organisation of metaphor landscapes into levels, see pp. 29-39 in Metaphors in Mind.

1. For an excellent article about Bateson’s Levels of Learning download:

Paul Tosey, Bateson’s Levels Of Learning: a Framework For Transformative Learning? Paper presented at Universities’ Forum for Human Resource Development Conference, University of Tilburg, May 2006 .epubs.surrey.ac.uk/1198/1/fulltext.pdf

See also our 2007 article about when clients meta-comment on their in-the-moment experience:

‘If only God would give us a sign’


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