Stuff:Votorola/a/M1:Mythopoeic overguidance

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Editorial note: Here I'll add an abstract and introduction. The original text was preceded by a separate section on the necessary inventions for maximizing personal freedom, with a focus on piped, tree-form guideways.1

The piped tree structure that we obtained in the previous section is especially suited to large-scale steering applications. Not only does it solve the basic problem of unforced consensus, but it does so by formalizing a marriage between an unorganized realm of freedom at the periphery (figure i3, leafward) and a stratified system of constraint at the centre (rootward). This makes for an especially promising solution because modern society has a similar, bipolar structure. As a first approximation to a design, therefore, we can introduce the piped tree (call it a 'guideway') between the two poles of society:

PGD.png PGD.2

If we look at where the guideway must interface with society along the leafward edge (figure PGD, λ), and there pencil in the requirement of rational discourse (D, which we have yet to meet), then it seems fitting that this edge of the guideway should interface primarily with that aspect of society known as the 'public sphere'. The public sphere comprises all the social spaces in which persons are free to gather and discuss the problems of society, and has always carried within it, throughout its history, the ideal expectation of a course of political action that is guided not by the contingencies of tradition, power or money, but independently through a 'public process of critical debate' and 'the unforced force of the better argument'.3 Accordingly, we should pencil in the person of the 'guide' (G) within the public sphere.

Habermas classes the public sphere as part of the broader conceptual pole of society known as the 'lifeworld', from which society is viewed in terms of its symbolic reproduction through 'the fabric of everyday communicative practice'.4 The other conceptual pole is that of the 'system' (right), which views society in terms of its material reproduction through 'ethically neutralized' and 'norm-free social structures', principally an economy and bureaucracy, whose regulatory effects are realized "beyond the actors' consciousnesses".5 Against this, the root of the guideway formalizes a consciously constructed, normative consensus. This makes it clear that the interface on the system side (σ) would be dealing with those parts of the system that are sensitive to formal consensus; above all with the electoral systems, legislatures and executive offices that convey decisive power in a modern democracy. Call these 'decision systems'.6

Bearing in mind that figure PGD is still only a preliminary design, let us now envision a particular application of it. Figure GL shows a snapshot of a law guideway. The crucial thing to understand in this particular case is that each seat of the legislature (yellow) is simultaneously targeted by a separate election guideway that runs in parallel and keeps running through the next election.7 Seated members who hope to be re-elected will therefore be careful to monitor both types of guideway: not wanting to lose primary votes to rival candidates in the election guideway, they will prudently support the same bills as their local electors in each law guideway. So the members in figure GL are moved to support the consensus bill with their own primary votes, which, of course, are still unofficial at this point. But if the rising tally of those votes (red) ever betokens a solid majority in the assembly, then that majority will turn around and vote the bill officially into law.

[GL] Guiding a law. Detailing the guideway/system interface (σn) in the case of a legislative decision. Primary voters in the law guideway are maintaining a rough, unofficial consensus on a draft bill, currently 61 to 34. Elected legislators begin to join in the voting. A separate tally of their in-house votes (red) shows them just 2 votes short of an assured majority in the official assembly, having 10 and needing 12. Primary turnout and assembly size are reduced for sake of illustration.8 legend

Granted a law can be guided in this fashion, and all it implies, there is still something fundamentally lacking in this pattern of guidance. Figure GP shows the pattern expanded in scope to include a planning issue, one that depends on the law of GL. Everything looks complete from a system point of view. The white arrows of the decision network trace a sufficient rationale for the enforcement of the norms (law, plan and budget), each of which can be seen as an indirect effect of an ultimately electoral cause. Here is the rational backbone of modern democracy, and the σ interface of each guideway depends on it (green arrowhead) and works to strengthen it. For instance, we saw how σn (figure GL) relies on electoral predictions that are realized through σe (figure GE, for instance) to causally bind the current actions and future re-election prospects of the incumbent legislator. A similar mechanism underpins the effectiveness of the plan and budget guideways. But even if that mechanism worked perfectly, it would be insufficient from the viewpoint of the lifeworld upstream of those guideways. There the validity of a norm depends not on elections, but on a specific consensus that is formed in rational discourse (D). In all such instances, the first demand of reason will be the question, Why? From what cause and to what purpose would we execute this plan? Or enforce this law?

When asked with insistence, the question is ultimately mythic, eventually demanding a full-scope explanation of where we come from and where we are going. Yet there is ground for insistence, because the laws, plans and other norms that give rise to this question are all formal standards of personal action, while, at the same time, the unsolved technical problem is to formalize a practice that relates such action to a universally collective end (M1). It would therefore fill an immediate, practical need to proactively answer the would-be mythic question, in each specific instance, with the help of an actual, universal myth.

We might compose that myth by employing a special guideway for the purpose. Its consensus text would then express the correct course to steer by. This possibility is indicated by the broad arrow Om in figure GP. Note the difference however; unlike the other types of guideway (green), this myth-making, or 'mythopoeic' overguideway is associated with no pre-existing, pre-instituted decision system (white). While legislatures and courts exist to realize the legal code, and a bureaucracy to realize the administrative plans, modern society is unequipped to realize myth. Instituting a guideway that makes myth, therefore, must go hand-in-hand with instituting a system that reads it, and maintains the course it sets. This might seem infeasible at first, given the history and constitution of the modern state, but a likely solution is suggested by the way in which the mythic answer is now being demanded. Since the demand arises entirely in connection with the other newly introduced guideways, those in which laws, plans and other norms are composed, we can take all of those together as the missing 'system' that steers society in obedience to myth. This solution is shown in figure MO below, extending the design sketch of PGD.

[GP] Guiding a plan. A plan is issued through a network of decision systems (white) and associated guideways (green).
[MO] Mythopoeic overguidance. Conventional norm guideways (Wn) are themselves guided through a mythopoeic overguideway (Om).2

Now whenever a demand for ultimate rationality is raised along the public interface of a guideway (λn), the drafters can meet that demand by inserting into their drafts a reference to the myth; for example, 'We affirm the universal consensus myth as our cause and purpose in composing this norm.' Such references, appearing in whichever drafts feel the need of them, comprise the overguidance interface (σm).

With this, the first guide (G) is ready to steer. She begins with an idea of the destination. Ordinarily it might be of any scope, whether local, or universal, or something in between; but in the very first, enabling instance of guidance, the scope is necessarily universal in both space and time, and therefore mythic; G conceives of a destination that is common to everyone who will ever live. Her strategy for attaining it is one of public persistence; she makes her arguments in public and keeps them there, ever present, for as long as she is convinced of their validity. Eventually those arguments will carry her idea through the public sphere (P) across the mythopoeic interface (λm).

Suppose this happens too slowly to please her. Then she herself moves across the interface and into the overguideway (Om). There she finds a rough consensus already formed, having taken root on a simple, but abstract draft: to the effect, 'We want to create a better future for ourselves and our children.' Agreeing with this, she too casts a vote for it; but then also composes her own, more expansive draft as a concrete elaboration of it. This approach is crucial; because the voting is transitive, the votes can now shift upstream to her version of the text smoothly, one by one, without ever breaking (nor even diminishing) the hard-won consensus on the root draft.

If the guideway as built does support a maximum of personal freedom (M2), then the burden of validating these overguideway drafts is ultimately reflected back to the broad, public sphere beyond λm — the same sphere that already validates all of scientific theory. Its rational discourses will now weigh these new, mythic 'hypotheses', not only in their claims to objective truth, but also subjective truthfulness (sincerity) and intersubjective rightness (morality).9 The sustained pressure of public critique and public voting will then mould the fallible text of the myth, shaping it ever closer to total validity. G's version of the text is just the first, substantive step on that evolutionary path.

But all normative texts are judged by the same criteria of validation, and against this common fulcrum the mythic consensus now gains purchase as a steering lever. On learning that a particular norm is inconsistent with the myth — the plan of figure GP, say — G joins in the public discussion of that text, too (MO, left). 'To agree to a course of action and then ignore that agreement,' she argues, 'is both insincere and morally wrong.' Again, her strategy is one of public persistence. If necessary, she enters the formal guideway (Wn) and personally helps to move the text forward. She knows that the text of the plan (like that of the myth) is ultimately constrained to evolve along lines of increasing validity, a goal that also includes staying in line with the myth. By furthering such evolution in general, therefore — across all the laws, plans and other norms of society — she and the other guides are able to steer the future of humanity along a valid, agreed course.

Editorial note: Here I'll draft a conclusion and links for further reading. The original text was followed here by a separate section on the material practice of rational being: Forever retelling the myth.1


See also

Property settings


Hab62 Jürgen Habermas. 1962. The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: an Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society. Translated by Thomas Burger, 1989. MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Hab81a Jürgen Habermas. 1981. Reason and the Rationalization of Society. Volume 1 of The Theory of Communicative Action. Translated by Thomas McCarthy, 1984. Beacon Hill, Boston.

Hab81b Jürgen Habermas. 1981. Lifeworld and System: a Critique of Functionalist Reason. Volume 2 of The Theory of Communicative Action. Translated by Thomas McCarthy, 1987. Beacon Hill, Boston.

Hab92 Jürgen Habermas. 1992. Between Facts and Norms: Contributions to a Discourse Theory of Law and Democracy. Translated by William Rehg, 1996. MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.


  1. ^ a b The present text is modified from a (2014) submission to an essay contest.
  2. ^ a b The system gears in figures PGD and MO are modified from an original drawing by Nevit Dilmen, 2009. Wikimedia Commons, public domain.
  3. ^ Hab62, pp. 27-31, 51-54, 99-101. Hab92, pp. 306, 541.
  4. ^ Hab81b, p. 138.
  5. ^ Hab81b, p. pp. 117, 178, 185.
  6. ^ Archived discussions on the distinction between consensual guidance and authoritative decision are indexed at
  7. ^ For more information on legislative election guideways, see Stuff:Votorola/p/guidance of assembly elections.
  8. ^ Primary turnout (number of participants in the guideway) would often be much larger in practice. Further a typical candidate (e.g. hollow circle) would likely have a larger number of direct voters, making the trees much bushier than shown.
  9. ^ Hab81a, pp. 234-42, 329.
  10. ^ The main effects of mythopoeia and mythic consensus occur immediately within the lifeworld, as described on this page.
  11. ^ Myth making is facilitated within the overguideway, as described on this page.
  12. ^ Overguidance from the lifeworld enters the administrative system of the various guideways across the system gap, as described on this page.
© 2014 Michael Allan, please do not copy