The Problem of “Universal” Speech

E. Forrest Christian Knowledge, Theory 3 Comments

In this post, I’d like to continue a thread about “Universals”, or ideas that are higher than Strata 5-8’s (“abstract conceptual”). I will go over some of the previous discussion, talk about the problems of 6th Order communication and maybe make a point or two. If you are coming to this site from outside the theoretical framework, you may want to first understand Elliott Jaques’s argument on progression and Complexity of Information Management.

Some time ago, Glenn Mehltretter posted a correction to my ideas about what Elliott Jaques called “Universals”. (Glenn runs PeopleFit with Michelle Carter ran the best training course I have ever attended, including those I have run. He has one of the clearest ways of teaching how to use Jaques’s findings in your organization.) The correction has stimulated my thinking about the problem. He provided a better way to refer to our terms:

  1. 1st order: pre linguistic, I like “self explanatory gestures” but its not completely accurate. Seconds to hours.
  2. 2nd order: I like “specifics”, but also not satisfactorily accurate. Children tend to be here. Hours to days.
  3. 3rd order: This is where we need to begin. Its the realm of most organizational work and normal adult life. Stratum 1 though 4. Days to years.
  4. 4th order: Executive leadership. Abstract concepts (also not a good term). Stratum 5 through 8. Years to decades.
  5. 5th order: General principles, Decades to centuries.
  6. 6th order: Universals, Centuries to millennia.

Glenn gave some examples from speeches of the Pope John Paul II and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Both of these were 4th Order (“Executive leadership: abstract concepts”) usage. He then said that he thought he saw some 5th Order (“General principles”) in the Pope’s speech:

However there were other terms includes that do have that higher order, subsuming character:

  • The rule of Law
  • Unity of the human family
  • The welfare of man

He goes on to say that the complexity of the words is not important:

Also, keep in mind that its not the words themselves, but it’s the [words’] user’s understanding of the words. For example the marketing exec who says “I call it the bounce strategy,” then proceeds to build a complex model. Words are not complex but the user’s content is.

First, a few more preliminaries.

  1. You will “get” the idea being communicated if it is beyond your “order of information complexity”. You may understand part of it but not the full complexity. When a Str9 speaker talks about “Liberty of Man” or “Free Will” to a Str5 audience, they will not understand the full complexity of the idea that speaker comprehends.
  2. You shrink ideas down to fit your personal level of Complexity of Information Processing. If you come to me with a Str9 communication, I will not only not “get” the full scope of your idea, I will actually shrink it down in my mind to be able to understand it.
  3. Using an idea in speech is very different from thinking the idea. I call this the Freshman Philosophy Major syndrome. They can use the terms that they find in the works of great philosophers and even define them, but the can’t do the philosophy. Talking about a philosophy is very different from doing philosophy. You can talk about Big Ideas at a lower level (if it were not true, we would have less pontificating here in our college town) but that doesn’t mean that you can think them. As Glenn says, it’s the user’s content that matters.
  4. If a very high stratum thinker (Str9+) had to communicate with us non-demigods, he or she would have to use simple language or define terms.
  5. Higher Stratum thinkers have to redefine common terms because of the difficulties in getting language to do what they want it to do.

Which leads us to one of our points.

“When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean”

But first, some wisdom from a deranged mathematician:

‘And only ONE for birthday presents, you know. There’s glory for you!’

‘I don’t know what you mean by “glory,”‘ Alice said.

Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. ‘Of course you don’t — till I tell you. I meant “there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!”‘

‘But “glory” doesn’t mean “a nice knock-down argument,”‘ Alice objected.

‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’

‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you CAN make words mean so many different things.’

‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.’

Or, as our friend Glenn said,

“Rather than ask can we identify “universals” lets ask can we identify 5th order language.”

Higher stratum people come up against what Buber’s translator calls “the limitations of language”. Apparently, Buber had a habit of inventing words in German or using them in startling contexts. The Apostle Paul did this in Greek. Everett Fox does this in his translations of The Pentateuch. The current language did not permit them to communicate the full idea.

Glenn says that Stratum 5 workers tend to use a term or phrase to connote something, followed by “and what I mean by that is…”; it’s a key sign of Stratum 5+. This “fussiness of language” (as Glenn calls it) results from the language that the user had known becoming insufficient to communicate a particular shade of meaning. Sure, “bounce strategy” makes sense but he had to explain it in order to show what it really meant.

Philosophers do this all the time. A friend of mine regaled me one night with his problems with Hegel, whom he was studying in the Erasmus Institute. “You have to get all his terms,” he says, “because he uses words in very particular ways.” Most philosophers do this. They have to in order to communicate exactly what they mean.

Great social thinkers have less luck. Spiritual leaders of the past few millenia have had to resort to using common terms in new ways. Jesus uses the phrase “the kingdom of God” or “the kingdom of heaven”, but apparently meant something different from the general way that his audience understood the term. The Buddha did similar things with phrases, if the translators are to be believed. They have to use common terms because they are trying to communicate to common people.

The examples of the way Jesus used terms is easiest for those of us in the West because of the way it permeates our literature. He uses terms which even his closest followers do not understand. He then explains it to them in a parable, a short metaphorical story that illustrates the idea he means closely but not exactly. Often even these stories are abtruse to his audience and they often ask him to explain them. But he can’t. The story is as close to explaining what he is trying to say as anything.

Which creates the problem: in order for Great Thinkers to speak to us, they have to talk in metaphor. The limitations of language are too great. They use art to communicate that which cannot be communicated. We create the meaning as we unravel the “story”. The original post-modern theorists wrestled with this very issue in litcrit. Sometimes the art means this; sometimes it means that. And “this” and “that” may be apparently mutually exclusive, a paradox. An apparent absurdity can actually be quite deep, moving below our consciousness to touch something in our minds.

This produces one of the great failures of philosophy. By trying to accurate, they fail to communicate.

If we believe that someone like Jesus was one of mankinds great social thinkers (even at his probably youthful age), then we have to come to grips with the idea that we will never truly understand exactly what he or she is trying to say.

Yet we can understand ideas that we don’t understand. Sure, we don’t have a conscious grasp on them but we still work in them all the time. Think about the horrible problems that anthropologists have trying to explain all the subtle rules of a particular culture.

Think about these “ideas” from Pope John Paul II that Glenn says are examples of 5th Order speech: “the rule of Law”; “unity of the human family”; “the welfare of man”. Most of us hear these phrases and think, “aha! I understand that!” But of course we don’t, because he was making a 5th Order point and we are perhaps 4th Order.

Had he instead said “The unity of the human family is like a man who owned a large company, which he built himself…” and proceeded to tell some story, we would all be arguing over what he had meant. The story would have a richness that continues to be unpacked, a depth to it even from reading it as an incomplete metaphor. Had he illustrated this point several times in a variety of ways (“The unityof the human family is also like cherry pie with a thin, flaky crust, baked by a man who had only one hand…”) we would perhaps understand something more of it.

We Can Put To Use Ideas Larger Than We Are

These stories, or generally “art”, are superior to the “plain statement” because of the limitations of language. And because even though we may not be able to get the whole idea intellectually, we can get a piece of it. Or perhaps pieces of it. We understand it emotionally, the way that we understand all things. [fromThe first Idea]

Let’s take the findings and theories of Elliott Jaques & Co. If you really want to get people to use them, you need to start telling stories about it. Use the ideas of “real boss” to write a storycycle: stories of real boss (heroes), bosses too low (anti-heroes). The villain is the system itself. Difficult but doable. May I suggest Science Fiction or Fantasy as a way to get below the radar?

It’s why the stories Jesus are still so compelling. When Jesus tells these “parables”, he gets into our emotional responses. “The kingdom of heaven is like a woman who lost a coin, tore up her entire house looking for it, then threw a party when she found it.” We have all had things that we have lost and hoped to find. We know the joy of finding something we had thought lost. So the story resonates and we accept it inside us. But what does it mean that the “kingdom of heaven” (whatever that is) is like that?

The richness of art is in communicating ideas that are beyond us, that we cannot use words to truly communicate without the contortions of the philosopher. When Buber uses his words weirdly, or “creates” his own, he is art-ing, artfully communciating his complex ideas in a new way.

So we should expect a 5th Order thinker to sound poetic. He or she would have to. A 6th Order would have to resort to storytelling, metaphors. The beauty of the metaphor is that it can deliver a richness of content that simply using words, even closely defined, cannot. The metaphor communicates on a variety of levels parts of the idea. You won’t hit a home-run with it because it may be misinterpretted. But since most of the audience won’t get what you are really trying to say, having pieces influence them is more than something for the social change leader.

Perhaps that didn’t make any sense. I should have told a story.

About the Author

Forrest Christian

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E. Forrest Christian is a consultant, coach, author, trainer and speaker at The Manasclerk Company who helps managers and experts find insight and solutions to what seem like insolvable problems. Cited for his "unique ability and insight" by his clients, Forrest has worked with people from almost every background, from artists to programmers to executives to global consultants. Forrest lives and works plain view of North Carolina's Mount Baker.  [contact]

Comments 3

  1. The description, your hypothesis, is brilliant, crisp and resonates. The comparative reference of speech and art is so applicable.

    It is the space that is created between the word formations that inspire the understanding. Your description can only be understood in what the comparison inspires. And, Universal is the perfect descriptor, for the language in this application as you have defined it is like the universe, and one can only understand the inifinite magnitude of space in an observation of matter and form. To attempt to be more specific, the size of the universe, the magnitude of space, can only be imagined by referencing the size of a planet, a galaxy, and the infinite number of galaxies within the universe, and within space. Yet we understand that space is nothing, it is empty, it is formless and meaning and form can only occur in space. The understanding is one not unlike a noise that can only be heard because there is silence.

    From your description, the sixth order communicator inspires the resonance and reverberation in the space that occurs beyond the spoken word.

    The description is compelling!

  2. Eric Voegelin on transparent and opaque symbols, and Marshall McLuhan being an artist (and only being understood appreciated by those who have a solid grasp on Joyce and the French symbolists) have this same insight, and flesh it out in ways you might find useful. The communication of the eternal with symbols of the sub-eternal is only possible in the moment, with images/symbols that resonate within the receiver, and call to mind/heart that essential knowingness that already resides in the breast — why the best “educare” are truly just “bringing out” what is already in there in their pupils. Under electronic conditions, those symbols change so rapidly, and the evocative response is so fleeting, because one’s state of mind is so infinitely alterable within the space of seconds these days, that real communication is harder and harder. My recent favorite example was when a friend was visiting and heard the church bells ringing outside our window — the church has a programmed bell player that plays a song that is the exact same song as the ringtone on her cell phone. She thought it was a friend calling, but it was actually God… or at least, that was the joke we made of the experience. In truth, however, both the programmer of the church bell symbols and the cell phone programmer thought “this would be a nice sound to hear” to summon the faithful. How appropriate, then, that cell phone reception towers are now located in church steeples across the country.

  3. Post

    Read, I hadn’t made those connections when I started thinking about this issue. Very interesting. That gets me thinking about the issue of communicating a 5th or 6th Order idea, the problems of communication inherent in it. The issue of the changing meaning of symbols is provocative. What does this mean in a world where regions are increasingly affecting each other in rapid ways? And not just in a one-on-one way, as in a takeover of one people by another. Think more like joining the Roman Empire and suddenly getting an occupation force from across the known world.

    So expect more on this.

    Also, Read’s link (metaphilm) is pretty interesting, but I confess to having hung out with a film scholar for a couple of years in Chicago.

    Anyone care to address how this ties into the major themes of the original litcrit postmoderns?

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