Printer Friendly


For many years I gave only scant academic attention to the notion of "multiordinality." For whatever reasons I did not find it as intriguing as other general semantics formulations -consciousness of abstracting, self-reflexiveness, multidimensional structure, semantics of the differential calculus, and others. But recently, at the 1985 Institute summer seminar to be exact, I became more interested in "multiordinality" in terms of its applicability to everyday situations--especially in the areas of interpersonal misunderstandings, conflicts, and disharmony. As a result of this renewed interest, I have come to view this general semantics formulation with a deeper understanding, and a great deal of respect.

In Science and Sanity, page 14, Korzybski formulates "multiordinality of terms" as follows: "The main characteristics of these terms consist of the fact that on different levels of orders of abstractions, these may have different meanings, with the result that they have no general meaning; for their meanings are determined solely by the given context, which establishes the different orders of abstractions." Now you may have noticed that in the opening paragraph I mentioned "multiordinality" rather than "multiordinality of terms." I did this to emphasize the point that "multiordinality of terms" like other general semantics formulations, is not simply about the language; it is about human behavior; and this includes perception, evaluation, language, etc., and their interrelationships. So when I mention "multiordinality," I am thinking in terms of a general principle of "multiordinality" of which "multiordinality of terms" is but one example. With respect to this, the experience of listening to a passage of music where a single note accompanied by two different chords sounds like two different notes, could be considered as an experience of "multiordinality." (You could if you like, call this "multiordinality of tones.") Another example is the situation where something seems to have a different color depending on the particular lighting conditions under which it is viewed.

But to get back to "multiordinality of terms" and how awareness of this semantic factor can be useful in resolving some interpersonal (and also international) tensions, let's take two words, "support" and "help." Try to recall if you may, some situation where you were expected to show support in terms of say taking sides in a disagreement between friends or relatives; or you were expected to help by giving advice to someone. And in connection with this, you may remember times when based on certain considerations (for instance out of respect and concern for the individuals involved, or out of concern for possible long-term developments) you decided not to say or do the expected things. If you have gone through such an experience, you may also still retain vivid memories of the responses to what was evaluated as your "cold, heartless, unsympathetic, and even unfriendly behavior." It is at such times that awareness of "multiordinality" can help to temper your responses to the responses, and cool your behavior, thereby diminishing the possible escalation of tensions and breakdowns in relationships.

From the point of view of "multiordinality of terms" and in terms of the situations outlined above, the words "support" and "help" can be assigned different meanings--in this case, seemingly opposite meanings--without contradictions, or paradox, depending on whether we are thinking in terms of immediate benefits or longer term developments; or whether we are thinking from narrower frames of reference, or broader frames of reference. We can support someone by not supporting them; and we can help by not helping. And in a similar vein, in terms of "multiordinality," we can sometimes be successful... by having failed; act intelligently... by not being so smart; go faster by moving slower; accomplish more... by doing less; go forward... by proceeding backward (you may have experienced this if you were ever stuck in the snow); manage a situation more effectively... by leaving it alone; lead... by following; cause a great deal of harm... by doing good; create a great deal of confusion... by explaining things--not always, but sometimes. In general terms, the way we experience a situation, the meanings we assign (expressed in terms of our responses), the way we perceive, understand, evaluate; the things we say, and how we talk about our experience of people, things, situations, and ourselves, depend (whether we are aware of it or not) on our particular frames of reference, domains of interests, points of view, concerns, and so on. In short we don't do anything out of context.

If we were to extend our notion of "multiordinality" to a farther limit, and speak from a mathematical frame of reference, we could say that anything we say, do, experience, understand, believe, know, etc., all our science, religions, philosophies, art, political systems, ideologies, fears, expectations, opinions, and so on... and also the meanings we assign to them, have to be considered as limited values we have given to indefinitely extended variables. Another way of saying this is that the experiences we have and the meanings we give to these experiences are selections from an infinite set of possible or assignable meanings.

You may have noticed above that I have included "experience" as an example of meaning. In doing this I am suggesting that an experience (not the content of the experience, but experience as biological functioning) can be considered as the meaning or preferably, a meaning our organisms have given to sensory, self-generated, and other stimuli: so meanings we give to the content of our conscious level experiences should be considered as meanings of meanings. This distinction between organismic meaning (as proposed) and conscious level meaning is usually not recognized until we find ourselves in unusual (for us) circumstances. For instance, we often do not know we have expectations (organismic level) until we find ourselves disappointed; or recognize our appreciation of someone or something until we have lost them or it. Differences in levels of meanings is also what we find when we look at our different concerns, interests, understandings, philosophies, sciences, religions, ideologies, etc. Biology and religion, for instance, pursue meaning at different levels of existence. (Could one also say "pursue existence at different levels of meaning?") And as mentioned earlier, individuals often find themselves at odds with each other by failing to recognize that their interactions involve different levels of meanings.

To pursue the analogy of sets, and subsets, we could say that the meanings we give to our experiences, and the experiences themselves, are embedded in the context of our own experiences, knowledge, understandings, beliefs, hopes, fears, expectations, and so on; and these are embedded in the context of particular social, cultural, and religious settings; and these are embedded in the context of current human knowledge, understandings, and beliefs; and these are in turn embedded in the context of particular periods of time, and intervals of space; and is that the end of the matter? Who knows?

From the above it is obvious that no two people can have the "same" experience; and it seems fair to suggest that if there were ever one word that we should hunt down and subject to the "multiordinal treatment," it would be the word "same." This word together with the attitude that accompanies it is probably the chief source of a wide variety of man-made problems. A nonspecific "sameness" attitude and indiscriminate use of the word "same" stifles our creative analysis, appreciation, and responses to the infinitely diverse happenings in our lives. As we accept that no two physical events are identical, so we should accept that every experience is a unique, different, and unrepeatable event. We could do well for ourselves if when we hear, or read, or think the word "same," we asked ourselves "In terms of what, or, in what way are these different situations, events, people, things, or ideas, etc., the 'same'?"

If the meanings or meaning we assign to anything depend/s on contexts, then we should expect that as our experiential horizons expand, the meanings we assign, and the corresponding responses, will change. And we should expect that the sensitivity, appreciation, and application of a multiordinal viewpoint will diminish the necessity to save face, and also decrease the hostilities and violence that often accompany this. For in the broader context of an infinite and expanding universe (expanding in terms of numbers of events), the meanings we assign to anything become increasingly inaccurate, indeterminate, and insignificant--a paralyzing, frustrating, and terrifying thought for some; but a sobering, calming, and peaceful thought for others.... To be certain of uncertainty... is to be certain of at least one thing.

To extend our limits still farther: If we accept that we live in a world of infinite numbers of characteristics; and that everything is related to something else; and that regardless of our proclamations to the contrary, it is beyond our abilities to know the boundaries of any set of relationships; and if we also accept that no one of us has, or can have absolute knowledge regarding the context from which another and even ourselves, experience, speak, and act; and that no observation or experience can take place outside of contexts; then we cannot help but to come to the logical conclusion that multiordinality is a fundamental semantic characteristic of human experiences, human evaluations, and human consciousness. As we cannot get outside of ourselves or outside of the universe of which we are a part, in order to evaluate our evaluations, all our experiences and perceptions must take place in the context of the limitations of our biological and psychological processes, past experiences, past perceptions, and so on. From this it follows that if there is evaluation or interpretation of any kind, biological--as mentioned earlier--or psychological, multiordinality is involved.

If we are concerned to be creative, intelligent, and sane human beings (whatever we may mean by these terms); and if we are to attain desirable levels of intrapersonal and interpersonal relationships, amidst all the uncertainties that multiordinality implies, then awareness and application of this moderating principle of multiordinality is indispensable. On page 15 of Science and Sanity, Alfred Korzybski (the formulator of multiordinality) said it this way: "The multiordinality of terms is the fundamental mechanism of the full conditionally of human semantic reactions; it eliminates an unbelievable number of the old animalistic blockages, and is fundamental for sanity."

In the context of more effective management of our everyday experiences, we can train ourselves toward becoming more flexible and open to new approaches and responses, by infiltrating our thinking with the notion of multiordinality. One way we can train ourselves towards more "multiordinal thinking" is to remind ourselves from time to time that all our interpretations, all the meanings we give to our experiences, all our responses to situations, are based to a great extent on what we don't know.... Now if you happen to find this difficult to accept, looking at it from this point of view may help: We live our lives to a great extent on the assumptions we make from our own experiences, and the assumptions we make based on the assumptions others make.

Training ourselves to think in terms of multiordinality will help us to be prepared and ready to acknowledge the limitations of the interpretations on which we base all our interpretations, ideas, feelings, expectations, opinions, decisions, actions, and so on. As some wise person once said, "We see what we see, because we miss all the rest." To this we could add that one of the factors we usually miss is that "others moving differentially through different regions of space-time, and through our symbolic environments, must see, and will interpret things differently from us." The biologist, the environmentalist, the logger, the real estate developer, the artist, the nature lover, the child, the parent, and others who couldn't care less about trees, will each experience a tree differently, as a consequence of differences in perspectives, concerns, interests, needs, etc. The immediate and usually overwhelming context of our own needs, interests, and concerns, often prevents us from remembering that there are other valid and complementary points of view.

There is much support for the proposition that science is one of mankind's most effective and successful endeavors. A close look at the methodology and practice of science reveals that in the unceasing update of observations and theories, and especially with the establishment of quantum theories, with their more explicit acknowledgement of probabilities and uncertainties, we find that "multiordinality" as a guiding principle, is at the heart of scientific activity. It may well be that our success as a species will depend on how quickly and how much "multiordinality" as an active principle is allowed to intrude on our conscious activities; and how quickly and how much this principle is allowed to permeate our reactions to the effects of these conscious activities on ourselves, on others, and on our environments.


(*) Milton Dawes lives in Montreal, Quebec.
COPYRIGHT 2017 Institute of General Semantics
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2017 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Dawes, Milton
Publication:ETC.: A Review of General Semantics
Article Type:Viewpoint essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 1, 2017

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters