Posted by: xeper | September 12, 2008

The Four Levels of “Why?”

Hasn’t it caught your attention that the question “Why” carries so many meanings? Consider the question: “Why did WWII happen?”. This question may mean any of clearly different meanings all indistinguishable from each other since they all use the same interrogative form “Why”. I suggest we find ways to enable the distinction between at least Four Levels of “Why”:

Immediate Why: Concerned with the instantaneous reason of the incident; the Immediate Why does not investigate nor speculate. The emphasis is on the acts that resulted in the incident. The implied belief is that if those acts were not allowed, the incident wouldn’t have happened:

“Hitler decided to invade Poland. The British and French declared war.”

Goal Why: Concerned with intentions of the key players or protagonists; the Goal Why emphasizes the underlying motives of the acts that resulted in the incident. While the precise act mentioned in the Immediate Why could have been skipped, this Goal Why would have tried to manifest in another act that would have also resulted in the same result. The implied solution is therefore to have influenced key players to think differently, as opposed to just act differently:

“Hitler wanted the Germans to regain belief in themselves after WWI, and to take revenge from the French for Versailles. The British and French, on the other hand, wanted to maintain the status quo.”

Structural Why: Concerned with the situation and the relative positions of the key players; the Structural Why emphasizes the belief that any other players in the same relative (unstable) positions would have resulted in the incident. The implied solution is therefore to have changed the structure of the situation to relieve tensions, otherwise the incident was inevitable:

“Versailles Treaty was simply too harsh to be sustainable.”

Transcendent Why (or Divine Why): Concerned with the positive results of the incident, no matter how late they may show up; the Transcendent Why, or Divine Why, emphasizes the self-organizing (or Karmic) aspects of systems in action, and the positive future aspects inherent in everything that happens. Suggesting a metaphysical and self-development element, the implied solution is to reach the positive outcome(s) proactively or preemptively before the incident happens, then the incident wouldn’t happen:

“So the Europeans would stop their never-ending wars trying to establish military dominance over other European powers. They needed such a huge tragedy just to realize the unified Europe they were trying to force militarily better be built on economic terms.”

Aren’t they different enough to deserve a distinction?? What do you think?

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  1. They already give themselves distinction based on vocal tone when asked. True? Immediate Why is asked rather sharply. Goal why makes an intent “I need some details” pitch. Structural sounds somewhat the same, however, when asked it sounds as if the asker is prepared to respond, or “structure” a conversation or some means of a solution. Transcendent Why is the one with a sympa/empathetic tone or pitch. It’s the type I usually hear when someone still wants to structure up a conclusion, put in a more heartfelt way.

    I’ll apply it.

    An incident just happened, everyone else knows, and you do too, just not in detail. During conversation, you may quickly ask, “why.” barely emphasizing that it’s in question form.
    You think you know someone from this incident. Goal why: “Why would he do that?” You want details.
    You get your details, but now you are starting to see that the person you know is not the only factor in the incident. SW: Why would he be over there anyway?” You get your answer, and the you are prepared to respond in defense so that you can get the other person to see the occurrence in a better way.
    Lastly, you know now that the person involved is indeed your friend, and this incident is out of their character. You then ask something that would get the person you consulted to understand you friend’s situation.

    I hope I’m not wrong, or at least not too wrong. =)

  2. Indeed you are very correct in your reply, Teganor. To summarize your reply and make sure I understand you correctly, you are saying that the four levels of “Why” are differentiated in our conversation using two elements: tone of voice and wording. I couldn’t agree more. (And I really enjoyed your accurate description of each tone of voice and the demonstrative applications you shared, they are both very true. Thank you.)
    The post does not deny that people who are very aware of the differences, such as yourself, can indeed use the word (in voice or question structure) in a way that shows clearly the intended level. However, the post aims to achieve two points:
    1) it is trying to make us always remember those differences because this is a tricky word, as opposed to other clearer words,
    2) it is suggesting a way to differentiate for people who cannot use tone of voice (eg. email) or/nor correct choice of words eg. after asking the question, I get a reply on another level than the one I wanted, so I have to clarify what I want, but the person in front of me is confused, so I need to clarify.
    3) is giving us a method to make sure we understand the question before we answer someone asking us “Why”; we can ask: “Divine Why? I dont know, but Goal Why, I wanted to do so and so”

    If I may give example of a similar case: Difference between literal and figurative usage of language:
    Someone tells a friend “I dont have enough money (for so and so)”. This can only be meant literally, so no ambiguity there.
    But if someone in the same situation “I dont have a penny”, or “I am bankrupt”, then here we are not sure if they mean it literally or they mean it figuratively. If you tell me that and I am alarmed and overly concerned, you might calm me down saying “Not literally, but I cant afford that”. In normal conversation, I find that we often need to explain ourselves after talking, and one way is to indicate whether we meant a statement literally or figuratively. This post suggests we might need this 4-level differentiation between the meanings of “Why”. People developing their personal philosophies and who ask “Why” a lot, especially in writing, might find it more useful than others would πŸ˜‰

    I hope this shows a bit of the reasons why the post was written. (Goal Why *smile*)

    And thank you for the comment, it made me think it over again πŸ™‚ I am looking forward to reading more of your comments πŸ™‚

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