On “nil” modality and Metapattern

Pieter Wisse

I’ve recently read your book “The” Fifth Modality: On Languages that Shape our Motivations and Cultures (C.W. Roberts, Brill, 2008) with keen interest and great enthusiasm. In the terminology of your framework, I guess I am an “agent” or “collaborator,” presumably both, to address you like this.

I am not convinced of there being (only) four modalities, that is (p. 64),

language[s] for referencing motivations.

Though I’ve certainly enjoyed your reasoning through Habermas and Derrida, why not leave it open? You yourself already seem (p. 21)

to remove from consideration


exclude theories

bearing some relevance, too. Anyway, what you call “the” fifth modality I would prefer to call a “nil” modality.

I feel qualified to offer you such a suggestion as I’ve developed a philosophy of subjective situationism. It entails a concept of language: every sign is a request for compliance. That is, just as what I recognize you as hypothesizing, sign exchange is first and foremost about influencing motivated behavior.

Any language game in the Wittgensteinean sense may actually be taken as (p. ix)

a “cultural default.”

A point that the information society is now forcefully bringing home, however, is that language games are not mutually disjunct, but through-and-through interdependent. So, I thoroughly agree when you argue that (p. ix)

we are all fundamentally linked into the world economy, a global ecology, and international politics¾each of which is influenced by people whose motivations differ radically[. Therefore,] we shall need to understand others’ various motivations if we are to grasp these world events and their impact[.]

It follows that (p. 38)

proposing a shared universalistic perspective

is counterproductive.
For such reasons, a qualitatively different (modeling) language is required. It is what I’ve called Metapattern.

Subjective situationism, with Metapattern as its accompanying language, originated, just as you’ve expressed it, from (p. 170) “wonder” rather than “skepticism” (p. 38):

[I]f one conceptualizes each person as understanding the world in her or his own way, the theorist is left with the challenge of explaining how such people can communicate.

Quite a challenge.

With Metapattern, as you ‘ve put it (p. xi),

[r]ather than debate which single depiction might be universal, […] each is better understood as being universal only among adherents to a specific type of world culture.

As I see it, the lower limit of “a specific type of world culture” should even be assumed at a particular situation as subjectively¾motivated to become¾experienced. For I believe you’re right in saying that (p. 38)

seeming inconsistencies among the theories[,]

or, as I would argue, among different conceptualizations,

disappear once they are located as discrete perspectives within people’s minds.

In that way, a continuum emerges from sociology through social psychology to cognitive psychology. The four modalities you’ve distilled as (p. xi)

[l]ong-term patterned behaviors, indeed societies,

can then be clearly positioned at sociology’s end of the specter, as aggregates to be detailed as explaining specific exchanges demand. Moving toward cognitive psychology’s end, i.e. from macro- to microculture, less of a “default culture” may be assumed as conditioning (p. 38)

a minimal consensus’ for people to consistently read each other.

The question soon becomes predominant how much effort participants in exchange are (still) prepared to invest in adding ever more explicit context. My impression, related to my idea of context, is that your idea of the “ambiguity-curve” helps to recognize why and where exchange continues, or breaks down.

You’ve written that (pp. ix-x)

when there are enough people in a society for most interactions to be between strangers, a “cultural default” is needed for them to understand why people act as they do.

I’d like to elaborate upon your statement. A healthy (global) society requires interactions between its members. Certainly, it is about understanding the partner in exchange. But it is also about making that partner understand.

What (meta)language allows for variable expression of context? For I don’t believe the problem of communication is solved simply by participants adopting some joint modality, which they should be able to do, as you suggest (p. xii),

[o]nce modality is a matter of choice[.]

With motivation dependent on a (p. x)

language-of-motivation¾or a modality¾[,]

chances of persuasion are severely minimized, if not eliminated, when a participant completely switches from her of his ‘own’ modality to that of the other. Rather, participants enter a contest over their middle ground, i.e. the area constituted by their original modalities being different. It may look like being performed, resolved, etcetera according to a single modality, but I would say that impression comes from concentrating on the result too much.

I would gladly agree with you on the benefits of “choice,” but regret to remark that I feel you’re being overoptimistic. I don’t see how (p. xii),

[o]nce modality is a matter of choice, it becomes possible to communicate with those who think solely in terms of a modal narrative different from one’s own.

Yes, it helps to understand the other to a much higher extent. And it will usually also help making one’s self better understood by the other. But being limited to the other’s modality, as I’ve argued above, biases communication. The outcome depends on distribution of critical qualities among participants, i.e. exactly how you describe it (!) in your book.

And I wish it were true that (p. xii)

[i]t becomes possible to persuade others that their modality is one of many.

What does become a possibility is that a knowledgeable participant can make an attempt. Success is far from guaranteed, though. It is the dilemma of any genuine paradigm shift. It is impossible to rationally convince somebody of a framework that already needs to be understood on order to understand its explanation. That is why a shift must occur, i.e. a leap of faith to different axioms. What makes the shift to a “nil” modality especially hazardous for most people is that they seem to lose grip. In fact, from the perspective of a single modality they do. How do they acquire sufficient trust to at least experiment with relative perspective, changing one for another as situations develop.

Likewise, I don’t think it is that easy (p. xii)

to opt out of a modal narrative at will.

For there’s always the partner in exchange to reckon with. Does s/he already practice perspectival relativism?

Metapattern exactly fits how you position “the” fifth modality at the end of your book. If you allow me some editing (p. 170),

[u]nlike the other […] modalities, [a “nil”] modality is not a secure ontological standpoint in accordance with which all specific standpoints can be understood [separately]. [… T]his “modality of modalities” requires the tentativeness of quotation marks around its [horizon plus an in]definite article.

In order that you may quickly discover what changes I made, for your convenience I’ll repeat your original:

Unlike the other four modalities, “the” fifth modality is not a secure ontological standpoint in accordance with which all “lesser” standpoints can be understood. [… T]his “modality of modalities” requires the tentativeness of quotation marks around its definite article.

As you probably know, Robert Musil wrote the novel titled Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften (English title: The Man without Qualities). I am far from an established literary critic, but I suppose what you are trying to claim, in my opinion rightfully so, for “the” fifth modality is that it is a modality without qualities. In your own words (p. xii):

As such it is a modality without a narrative.

It certainly is how I view Metapattern, that is, as a language without qualities. Being without inherent qualities, or predetermined narrative, indeed, as (p. xii)

a language of motivation that posits neither universals nor its own universality,

like “the” fifth modality, Metapattern (p. x)

differs from these other languages in its repudiation of its own universality¾a repudiation that leaves it ever-open[.]

Therefore, about “the” fifth modality and Metapattern I wouldn’t claim they offer (p. x)

a more general language that incorporates them all.

It’s precisely because they radically disincorporate qualities characteristic of “them,” i.e. (more) normal modalities etcetera, that such nil-languages afford powerful synthesis of expression.

My impression is that Metapattern as a “nil” modality is ¾hence the indefinite article¾ even closer to nil than “the” fifth modality currently is.

I’ve refrained from mentioning any references to subjective situationism and Metapattern. I’ll of course be happy to supply some if you’re interested. At this stage, I just wanted to inform you that I’ve done work that seems to complement yours. As a “nil” modality, I see “the” fifth modality strongly confirmed and supported. My suggestion is that you may take it further.

I am looking forward to your reply in whatever modality you choose.
Yours sincerely,
Pieter Wisse (Voorburg, Netherlands)


October 4th, 2010, web edition 2010 © Pieter Wisse



¨ I would very much like the opportunity to discuss what regardless of a name for it we seem to agree are metalanguages for which there’s an increasing need for dealing with the complexity of social relationships.
As for my background, I once got a degree in mathematics and information (engineering) science from Delft University. (Much) later I received a PhD from Amsterdam University.
In my dissertation I developed semiotic grounds for information science, extending and integrating work by Schopenhauer and Peirce. Holding on to Peirce’s transcendental approach, I turned his semiotic triad into a semiotic ennead, i.e. with nine rather than three irreducibly related elements. One of the ennead’s elements, which is where Shopenhauer (The World as Will and Representation) comes in, is: motive. And there it is, that is, what I see as even a formal link between your and my work.
A model of (dialogical) communication can now be taken as two enneads, one for each participant. See figure 4 in Dia-enneadic framework for information concepts. What such a static diagram of course doesn’t show are constitutive dynamics of semiosis for each participant.
An axiomatic framework with nine rather than three elements allows for more variety to be explained from it. If you will, it is a more powerful tool.
The semiotic ennead/Metapattern helps me for example with balancing relativism. For what a person takes as a particular situation, all that’s inside appears with an absolute value. Please note that the scope of such positivism is limited. On the other hand, what is relative pertains to switching from one situation to another. As my friend John Haynes might express as a contragram: the relativism of absolutism is the absolutism of relativism. We should leave it at that, I believe.
I don’t feel the slightest impulse to argue with you on how “languages […] shape our motivations and culture.” For I simply agree with most of what you put forward, … and what’s left I probably don’t understand.
In an attempt to complement your work, however, my focus is more on method (also read: tool). For example, as both a mathematician and an engineer I immediately wonder why distinguishing modal languages is useful. My view is that language use is inherently modal, too. In other words, modality is not a separate category but a variable according to broader category. Modality exists as a matter of degree. It simply has lower boundary value being zero, or nil.
When you take that approach, it becomes easier to recognize relationships.
As I already wrote, the way you limit the range to four modalities appears convincing. But even when a claim for its absolute truth could be upheld, I would still opt for the elegance of positioning the metamodel language at nil rather than five. Keeping ourselves wondering about what still may follow seems more productive.
I’ve noticed that you associate request with consciousness. That is definitely not an association I want to imply with ‘every sign is a request for compliance.’ On the contrary, most communication to be effective remains outside consciousness/awareness. In your own words (p. x):

When people use language, they do so in hopes that nobody will notice that they are speaking or writing.

In fact, the one even¾subconsciously, too, of course¾hoping the most not to notice could as a rule very well be the speaker, rather than the listener.
Perhaps I’m being overly practical, but I find the idea of “validity claim” very helpful for maintaining relevant empathy. It is (also) a powerful heuristic.
I accept the view that a particular claim is characteristic for some culture at large (which reminds me, by the way, of Hofstede’s Cultures Consequences). Then again, ‘inside’ a particular culture different claims may occur jointly and/or subsequently in exchange. Especially, as my experience has learned me, in government circles there’s frequent changing from one claim type ¾damn, they still don’t do what I want; what do I try now?¾to the next. Educating, at least trying to, an adolescent proves the point, if I may say so.
In my view, the utility of interpreting communication in terms of validity claims should be greatly emphasized when cultures more and more assume the character of mixing modalities. Being first land, and later country, with immigrants from such mixed sources, it should be no surprise that the USA are pioneers of such variety (which also explains simultaneous strong interior resistance).
For me, variety is a key idea. Professionally I am trying to develop information science into a discipline for answering problems and opportunities at the scale of¾ultimately, inevitably so, as you’ve also argued, international¾society.
A useful comparison exists with architecture of the built environment. For information systems, despite rhetoric, there’s actually still only one type of ‘architect.’ S/he deals with an information system as if it were a separate building, only. Lacking is the additional and complementary discipline of considering information flows at the scale of, as the analogy suggests, city, region, etcetera. Yes, you’re right, coming from the Netherlands, my perspective is characteristically mutualist. There only don’t seem many of them left, here, I’m afraid.
Moving beyond a single, isolated and small-scale information system the requisite variety for semantics (more precisely: pragmatics) changes qualitatively. Beyond a narrow situation, information can no longer be depended upon to carry uniform meaning.
Metapattern is the (modeling) language for accommodating variety by facilitating contextual and temporal differentiation. When a specific meaning must be attributed to a.o. a specific motive, that motive needs to be included/represented in the information model. My dissertation Semiosis & Sign Exchange presents some examples to that extent. In short, whatever modality can now be expressed by virtue of …, well, we agree on what’s essential for a metalanguage. It helps to take care of the constructive aspect of “deconstruction.”
Therefore, I can only support¾for what it is worth¾that you a.o.

view modal statements as rhetorical arguments that may fail (thereby being raised to the level of reflective examination) or succeed (thereby being uncritically accepted as real).

All I suggest, basically in some literal sense, is that your position might be sketched with even more precision and relevance when you start from¾what I propose as a¾more generic methodological framework.
For example, I am now involved in applying Metapattern to modeling legislation. We’re not aiming at a separate model, but instead integrating legislation with operations. We need a language for expressing both, as you make the distinction, “relational and operational knowledge,” and showing their interconnection! Only then does requisite variety come within practical reach for dealing with balancing relationships for an equitable¾there’s your mutualist again; so you’re right!¾information society.
I find your reference to “comfort” very appropriate. What people experience as comforting is again highly dependent on …, there we are again. If you want to succinctly express such confluence with a show of mastery, simply turn it into yet another contragram: the comfort of motivation is the motivation of comfort.


October 5th, 2010, web edition 2010 © Pieter Wisse



¨ Again, what I find especially intriguing is how our approaches seem complementary based on a common insight regarding variety. If I may make an (additional) suggestion, currently a new cabinet is formed here in the Netherlands by three parties with two of them supplying ministers (USA-equivalent, I guess: secretaries of state). You might start from the hypothesis that each party corresponds to a modality: 1. VVD – individualism, 2. CDA – mutualism, and 3. PVV (Wilders) – doctrinism. Isn’t it more interesting to go for distinguishing between three, rather than two modalities? You’re certain to raise public interest, in the wake of PVV’s notoriety, even internationally, should you take on such an investigation of this particular case of cabinet formation. Funding? I don’t know my way around academic grants etc. What do you think? Well, it’s just another suggestion. Still, personally, I would be (far) more interested in what you make of a configuration of modalities that seems to paralyze politics, actually in a growing number of countries. I’m sure the national broadcasting network would give you access to their recorded material. Then again, don’t hesitate to let me know in a plain individualist way when you find my additional suggestion stupid, unrealistic, or whatever.
My approach in modeling legislation is to simply start from written law and with Metapattern make implicit assumptions explicit. When you have a few minutes to spare, a small modeling example demonstrating how Metapattern works is available.
As taking a cue from legislation, why not start with the first sentence of the Constitution? It turns out that it takes the length of ¾ half a ¾ a magazine article coming to grips with just this single sentence. Indeed, together with a friend who studied law I’ve recently written and submitted precisely such a text (in Dutch) to a legal magazine for a special issue on language and legislation. We should finalize our draft for publication soon. You’re of course most welcome to read it, too. When we’re finished with it, I’m happy to send you a digital copy. I’m sure it will help you discover both differences and points supporting your approach.
The benefits of such systematic modeling at the social scale of information exchange accrue from working through the rest of legislation. For assumptions ruling the meaning of the first sentence are partly relevant for interpreting the second sentence, and so on. It works like modeling toward an asymptote. The ascent is quite steep, i.e. very soon hardly any additional assumptions are required. The practical relevance, here’s the engineer speaking, for information systems is huge. It is possible to eliminate semantic redundancy resulting in higher quality and lower costs. Do I live to see it really work at the appropriate scale? I doubt it, but now that I know how it can be done, I cannot help trying.
Please let me know when you have the impression I could help you (I probably know some people how know some people …) preparing for your originally planned research or, not a bad idea at all, if I may say so, research into what certainly will become known as a paradigm shift in political relationships. With your work, you can shed light on developments giving many people, including myself, great concern. More importantly, you can point out opportunities from awareness of modalities.


October 6th, 2010, web edition 2010 © Pieter Wisse



¨ Being just an amateur modality researcher myself, and having only recently become active as such, I take your point about CDA. i.e. questioning it as mutualist, as an indication that your approach will bring out wherever you’d apply it in so-called developed society that actual behavior¾with talking/writing (attempts at verbal persuasion) as political behavior par excellence¾demonstrates modal flexibility. Claiming middle ground, CDA’s guise is understandably mutualist. Or is that not what you meant? It again finds its implementation bridging the different modalities of two other parties, while at the same time ever ready to sabotage this bridge when hinging yet another coalition promises more power for itself.
In general, starting from four modalities I’m inclined to reinterpret then as four dimensions, together defining a behavioral space (as in analytical geometry). A particular contribution to discourse may then be seen as a vector with values along each of the four dimensions. A contribution is, for example, purely individualist when values for the other three modalities are zero. I suppose this is how Lévi-Strauss moved from phenomenon to field/structure.


October 7th, 2010, web edition 2010 © Pieter Wisse



¨ Our theoretical positions are very close, I feel. At least, what you call justification is what I regard as occurring by sign to achieve compliance with motive. And as I see it, there’s no such correspondence between sign and motive to be taken for granted. If I may be permitted remaining obnoxious a while longer, yes, for an assumption I follow your lead that motivation is essentially, say, mono-modal. According to the enneadic scheme, that suits focus. However, the sign produced to effect compliance may be mixed as the speaker strategically tries to adjust to the hearer but is uncertain about precisely which modality to address. So, why not address several at the same time, observing what passes the other’s filter (and actually, subconsciously, more often than not, wanting to keep her/his own actual motivation hidden … which explains the divergence)? Or s/he may in fact be most certain, but perform what in psychotherapy is known as a paradoxical intervention.
Wouldn’t it help to distinguish between necessarily single motivation modality and possible multiple sign modalities? Of course I realize this idea constitutes a departure from your argument that “specific modal usages [my emphasis] do not admit of degree.”
I clearly recognize that your argument holds for stable social relationships. Under such circumstances, indeed, the one-to-one correspondence I mentioned above may be expected to exist as “default culture,” i.e. can and therefore should be taken for granted. It allows for simple communicative strategy. I’m not so sure, though, what happens when social relationships lack such stability.
How you argue for “a strategy of shifting with the winds” perfectly fits, I would say, to keep at least one’s own ground and possibly, why not, gain some in the process. Confusing the enemy, is perhaps equally fitting. In fact, sign use that is incongruent with single motivation modality will actively contribute to keeping ‘the system’ away from a stable state (equilibrium?) with its optimum of one-to-one correspondence between motivation and modal usage. People don’t really mind when they don’t make any sense, as long as they get their (own) way.
Please let me know when you find my application ill advised, but in addition to confirming what happens in normal communication I believe that your framework helps to understand and possibly straighten out pathological communication. Why stop at explaining reactively, when¾argues the ever practical, optimistic engineer¾it can also be an important instrument for proactive use?!
Does this mean you once have to look at the process of Dutch coalition cabinet formation, anyway?


October 7th, 2010, web edition 2010 © Pieter Wisse