What is Catataxis? It is the confusion between levels and comes from two greek words. The first “kata” meaning down or through as in catastrophe or cataclysm. The second “taxis” meaning rank or level as in taxonomy (yes, a taxi rank literally means rank rank). So catataxis is a confusion or breakdown between hierarchical levels. Catataxis is the noun, catataxic the adjective, and catataxia the plural noun, implying a general condition.
When things get bigger, they change in nature. Another way to put this is “more of the same is different”. If you can’t see the wood for the trees, then you are unable to make the conceptual shift up one level. You are suffering from catataxia. By looking at the detail you miss the big picture. If you try to use your level one analysis at level two, that is catataxis: the misuse of a rule in its wrong hierarchical context.
If that all sounds a bit abstract, here are some other examples:
You are not stuck in traffic. You are traffic. This popular bumper sticker is a good illustration of catataxis. In your car, you see things from a personal perspective, but if you go up one level and see it from a general perspective then you realise that your car is causing as much of a problem as everyone else’s. That perspective shift from the personal to the communal is a change in levels. So complaining about traffic while being it is a catataxic fallacy; you have been unable to make that shift.
The death of one man is a tragedy. The death of a million is a mere statistic. This was reputedly Stalin’s favourite motto. His point was that beyond a certain scale it is not really possible to feel human emotions any more. As the number of people involved in a tragedy gets bigger, our emotions shift from empathy (feeling the pain of a single, poor victim) to sympathy (feeling sorry for them all in general) to indifference.
Food aid causes famine. This is a more contentious one. On a human level, if I have a full plate and your are staving then I will of course share my food with you. That is obviously the right thing to do. But at a national or economic level, then it is the wrong thing to do. If you dump free grain into a market you remove any incentive for the local farmers to grow any crops. That means that there will be no food next year. You make them dependent on charity. So the right thing at level 1 ( human level) is the wrong thing at level 2 (economic level). That is an example of catataxis.
Economic slump? Start saving ! In an economic downturn it makes sense for individuals (level 1) to stop spending and start saving money. After all, its quite likely they might lose their jobs. But the state (level 2) should start spending money to boost the economy. That’s the basis of Keynesian economics. Again, the right thing at level 1 is the wrong thing at level 2 . So it is another example of catataxis.
Britain wants Brexit. Scotland wants independence. This is a political example of catataxis. The hierarchy here is Scotland (level 1 with 5 m citizens), which is part of the United Kingdom (level 2 with 60 m citizens), which in turn is part of the European Union (level 3 with 750m ). Britain wants to leave the EU but keep Scotland subordinate. But there is a certain degree of hypocrisy here as the arguments that Britain use against being part of a larger union are the same as those that Scotland uses against the United Kingdom. We can extend the example further down the ladder by looking at London which voted overwhelmingly to stay in the EU. So the idea was floated that London should exit Britain to become an independent City State like Singapore, but part of a larger regional EU structure.
You can divide many things up into hierarchical levels. Each one is made up of the one below. But even though it consists of the same stuff, it is different. Or at least it needs to be approached with a different analytical toolbox. Consider the following:
subatomic particle > atom > molecule > molehill > mountain > planet > galaxy > universe
city state> nation state> EU > UN
pn junction > transistor > microchip > motherboard > PC > operating system > word processor > this sentence
facts > story > spin doctor
organ > organism > population
stock price > Dow Jones Index > index futures
transaction > company > economy
The rules and assumptions that apply at one level should not be used at another level. Quantum Physics is great for understanding sub atomic particles but Newton’s Laws are more useful when considering billiard balls. Microeconomics and macroeconomics are very separate disciplines which often come to conflicting conclusions.
Consider this chain of disciplines: physics > chemistry > biology > psychology.
Physics studies atoms.
Chemistry studies the molecules made from atoms.
Biology examines creatures made from molecules.
Psychology probes the mind of creatures.
Does that mean that chemistry is just a subset of physics ? Or that psychology is just applied biology? I don’t think so. Each discipline has its own rules and analytical techniques which are appropriate only to its own field. So despite the fact that the human brain is made up of sub atomic particles, your shrink is unlikely to be consulting a physics textbook when listening to your problems. If you ever catch him doing it, you can tell him that he has committed a catataxic error.
Things change when they get bigger. A small company is very different from a big company as anyone who has worked for one knows. In a big company different values become important and different skills are required to succeed. Its not just a difference in scale, it’s a different creature altogether. In a small company, relations are informal and human. In a big company, they are much more impersonal and bureaucratic.