Adrian Williams: Nested Levels

The major ideologies have been pictorially presented in a variety of ways; as a system of levels, a pyramid, a circle, a series of points on a graph, or as nodes on a line of development. Each presentation illuminates some features of the system. Here ADRIAN WILLIAMS introduces a novel conception, and one likely to prove fruitful. – GW

The introductory statement in IC posits a developmental series of ideological levels, although without using the word ‘level.’ It does not ascribe superior value, in a general sense, to any one level, and recognises the full set of ideologies as necessary to keep a complicated industrial society functioning. Drawing an analogy with furniture and computer programming I propose to refer to this pattern of ideologies as a ‘nested’ structure, each higher level being nested within the previous lower one. The strength of this model of multiple ideologies within one society is that it allows for each of the different groups having a particular range of activities in which it specialises – and develops the greatest competence, without being in direct competition with other groups for what they in turn claim as their core activities. Similarly, the different groups use different core arguments to establish the validity of their activities. This offers the advantage, over other models of the way a society functions, of not positing a continuing struggle for exclusive domination. The limited success of political theories derived from any major ideology taken by itself is worsened by the use of formal logic, leading to attempts to force either / or decisions on questions of which theory is ‘right’ and which ‘wrong.’

IC48 carries a reference to another theory which posits a set of levels and has considerable power to describe its own field of study. It does not appear to have a simple name but its field can be said to be that of personal development leading to a state of mystical experience. This is given in the article Evolution of Spirit, which refers to Up from Eden, by Ken Wilber. For a brief exposition of the model it is easier to refer to an earlier and shorter book, No Boundary, by the same author. In this Chapter One gives a diagram showing the model with its set of levels starting with the part of consciousness acknowledged by the individual and then advancing though various other stages of consciousness to a vaguely-defined state which constitutes the mystical experience. It sets various theories of psychology in the model, in such a way as to show that they are not simply in opposition but have their own specialised fields and do not need to spend time trying to eliminate each other.

Perhaps the clearest example to use for explaining the power of this model, and as an analogy to s.i., is provided by the Freudian and Jungian psychologies. To many people these appear as irreconcilable theories which have been in opposition from the time when Jung and Freud split up, before the First World War. Certainly Freud appears to have believed, to the end of his life, in their irreconcilability. Whether Jung also believed this is less clear because he needed to establish the validity of his scheme on ground which Freud had already occupied. That could have led him to overstate his case in his lifetime, but his followers do not have the same problem; they remain free to follow Wilber’s arguments showing that the two schemes work each on its own part of self-development, so they do not come into conflict. In No Boundary Wilber explicitly shows this to be an asymmetric relationahlp Jungians can admit that the Freudian scheme has some validity in its own domain while claiming the same for their own approach. Freudians on the other hand, with their simpler model of human consciousness, cannot admit the validity of anything else which claims to be fib more developed. Wilber goes a step farther still, identifying levels of consciousness beyond the Jungian, levels which orthodox Jungian theory does not recognise.

For the analogy between Wilber’s scheme as he expounds it and the system of levels presented in a.i. the one sizeable stumbling-block is his tendency to attribute supreme validity to his highest level, the one to which he himself is committed. The equivalent, in s.i., would be to think of the metadynamic, or ideology of ideologies, as exercising control over the other ideologies and those attached to them, when in fact this theory explicitly recognized that the more developed levels depend even for their means of expression on the less developed. If there be any scale of value or validity in s.i. it favours the less developed ideologies, for through most of history, and even before history began, these have been demonstrating their ability to maintain themselves independently of the more advanced. Here as in other connections these form the outer, more resistant and more stable components of the nest. There lias recently been a report on the value of a nested structure in the field of engineering. Having appeared, without attribution, in the “Science and Technology” section of The Economist for October 27th 1990, it cannot count as a primary reference, but is nonetheless a useful account of work on the development of robots at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Most work on robots has been done in the form of large programs to continuously assess all factors needed to perform all functions, an immensely complicated operation which has so far met with limited success. This latest report explains the advantages of using the nested structure to combine into patterns of behaviour which look purposive (in human terms) – and are very reliable.

It gives examples of robots which can move around, avoid other objects and seek the furthest point in a room, or hide and listen to conversations, or seek prey. To give one instance, a robot is built which has one level of command concentrating on standing upright, a second which concentrates on walking, a third directed to avoiding any other object (mobile or stationary), a fourth level which concentrates on aimless walking, and a fifth whose part is to find the furthest point in a room. The report explicitly says that “each layer can take the capabilities of those beneath it for granted” and “the collision-avoidance layer simply over-rides any instructions from the wandering or exploring layers when a bump threatens – only to go quiet again when Allen [the robot] is safely clear.”

This provides a direct analogy with the system of nested levels formed by the major ideologies. Each of those takes the lower levels for granted until some failure of accustomed routine demands attention. People working at a more developed level may believe the less developed activity to be both easier and less important, but they find out, when the inevitable hiccup occurs, that their own activity proceeded smoothly only because the other was functioning as usual. Any disruption in it interferes with their own work, and may even oblige them to depart from their own particular concerns to attend to it – when they commonly find it less simple and easy than had appeared.

The various activities constituting a nested system of ideologies are not simply in opposition; they are mutually supportive, interdependent (though asymmetrically so), they display co-operation. Disputes still occur, but they tend to be limited to two areas, appearing either at the interface between two activities or when the lower level, feeling threatened, uses its greater strength, size and weight to override the higher. In such cases any logical argument that may appear comes from the upper level, the lower inclining rather towards direct action, returning to relative quiescence when the threat has been over time, relaxation does not mean going out of existence. The lower level is still there, and still performing its usual function, but so long as it does not come into conflict with a higher level it tends to be taken for granted.

In psychologies and ideologies, as in the levels of command of a robot, the lower will sometimes override the higher, supposedly in the interests of security. This doesn’t happen often or easily in humans, partly because the higher levels normally comply with the routine operations of the lower so no conflict arises, and partly because, the lower levels not being completely unitary, an upper one is sometimes able to organise enough support to impose its requirements. Within the field of psychology, if a higher level overrides a lower this commonly entails modification of the requirements and, consequently, costs which cannot long be tolerated. That is to say, the resulting pattern of behaviour, being unstable, is referred to as neurotic by therapists. A problem has arisen which has brought two levels into open conflict, with both being thought to be acting in the interests of the person’s security. Individuals can, and often do, take socially-approved standards as a norm with which to comply as they grow up. If they get problems later they may be encouraged to change with the help of therapists (perhaps using Wilber’s theories) when necessary. What they are encouraged to change into is a matter of argument for different schools of therapy, each of which will be trying to make suggestions which give the client a stable pattern within his / her society. Within the field of ideology, for a society as a whole there is no more stable entity to provide any such standard; it has to work out its own salvation by establishing a sustainable relationship between the various major ideologies and their adherents.

Engineers enjoy prestige as a result of their previous’ successes; now the Economist article shows their robots using a nested command system, and pursuing much wider objectives, outperforming the earlier, simpler ones. We can reasonably hope that the value of nested structures in the operations of a complicated society will be appreciated more widely, and greater interest shown in theories presenting such structures, systematic ideology among them. This is unlikely to prove sufficient in itself since the present nested structures still rely on formal logic and thus provide a good analogy only for the eidostatic part of the ideological range. Getting the full value out of the concept of nested structures will mean taking account of the eidodfnainic section as well, with its dialectical logic, but that is a whole new story.

Anon, The Economist, 27 October 1990, p.135.
Wilber K. (1979) No Boundary, Boulder: Shambhala.
Wilber K. (1983) Up From Eden, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

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SIXTIES radical in the eighties:

Sweetheart, that whole show back then was a put-on. You gonna tell me we were trying to change the world? We were kicking ass and having fun. All that screaming about Vietnam and burning draft cards? That was a little bitty part of it. Getting stoned and laid was the trip. Where’s everybody now? We’ve come clear around to the other side, joined the establishment. (Skip Gibbs, in the novel Freaky Deaky, by Elmore Leonard. London: Viking Books, p.40. Reproduced by permission of Penguin Books Ltd.).

from Ideological Commentary 52, Summer 1991.