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On hierarchy, heterarchy, and taxis

What follows is an excerpt from my notes. I am sharing it as I recently had a related discussion and need to have a link I can share (insert meme about people on the Internet being wrong).

The term “heterarchy” is employed as a de facto antonym of “hierarchy”. It basically means “non-hierarchical” and that is how I used it a few years ago when I was impressionable.

heterarchy (ˈhɛtərɑːkɪ)

a formal structure, usually represented by a diagram of connected nodes, without any single permanent uppermost node. Compare hierarchy, tree [from Greek heteros other, different + archē sovereignty]


While I don’t believe I will change anyone’s mind on this, I hold that the term is inaccurate. We can do better.

There is heter for “other” or “different” and then arche for the kind of order where a given entity, be it person, office, or group, takes precedence over those being governed. Arche means the “beginning” (starting point), but also “leadership”. The latter can loosely be interpreted as someone being at the starting point to show the way and others following along.

The archon, else the ruler, cannot be defined in terms of heteros, as the notion of an “other ruler” or “different ruler” is still reducible to “ruler”: we continue to have a defined arche. The concept of a heterarch, meaning “other ruler”, is closely related to a condition of heteronomy: a state of affairs where governance, or the effective law (nomos), is controlled by another person or entity as opposed to the one/those being governed. From the perspective of the governed, the entity which keeps them heteronomous can be considered heterarchic.

Perhaps heterarchy can be used to describe a scenario where one node connects to multiple parent nodes. In that regard, the concept of “other” is appropriately included. Still, archon is a problematic term for something that represents connected nodes which may have nothing to do with governance. For example, the node labelled “American Pitbull Terrier” connects to “Dog” which in turn connects to “Mammal”, but we do not mean that the latter governs the former, strictly speaking. Archon, and then the primary archon (kyriarchon == sovereign), and all derivatives connote governance or management in the sense of direct control, of a ruler compelling you into action in the most practical way.

Indeterminate uppermost nodes are likely to be observed in a note-taking system where entries use tags to describe their relationships. The tags do not impose a state of governance. They reveal patterns, which is a more nuanced affair that bossing subjects around.

If we want to juxtapose one archon to another, we might use the anti prefix, as in “antithesis”, “Antipolis” (opposite city; city on the opposite side) and names like “Antipater” (“as opposed to—or in comparison to—the father”). This, however, requires a comparison where the node has a direct anti-node. It cannot be a general term to denote a state where a node has no defined uppermost node and thus, may be open-ended in some manner.

The gist is that “heterarchy” does not tell us what the structure is, as the aforementioned definition suggests. Semantically, it has nothing to do with the notion of non-hierarchy, the negation of hierarchy, and the like. The negation and thus the absence of an arche is non-arche, else anarchy.

The word “hierarchy” involves the composite of hier (holy), in reference to priests. In its basic form, the hierarch is the one who manages—rules over—religious affairs. Another term is “teletarch”, where telete (τελετή) stands for “ceremony”: so the hierarch is the master, or leader, or organiser of the ceremony and of the holy matters more broadly. The hierarchy then, is the noun which describes this status.

Language is made and remade through its use. It is clear that we apply “hierarchy” for practically everything that resembles a pyramid-like organigram. The religious connotations are lost, though the meaning of an arche persists, which is what matters to us right now. Despite the differences between the original meaning and how it is used ordinarily, we are still referring to an order where a certain entity—individual or group—takes precedence over others and thus is “at the beginning”, as the origin of whatever power impulse compels and controls the components of the given structure.

With the term “heterarchy”, we displace the now-irrelevant hier part with the loaded heter prefix to ultimately cause confusion.

The right term for anything pertaining to an organisation, a diagram, and the like is “taxis” (or “taxy”), literally “order”. The previous example with the dog is a case in point.

taxis [ tak-sis ] noun, plural tax·es [tak-seez].

  1. arrangement or order, as in one of the physical sciences.

  2. Biology. oriented movement of a motile organism in response to an external stimulus, as toward or away from light.

  3. Surgery. the replacing of a displaced part, or the reducing of a hernia or the like, by manipulation without cutting.

  4. Architecture. the adaptation to the purposes of a building of its various parts.

We can then have composite terms like “heterotaxy” for a heterogeneous or heteroclite order (here is the “hetero” again) and “homotaxy” for a homogeneous or homoclite one (notice the parallel). In Greek, we also have terms like “parataxy” (think of the “para” in “parallel”) for opposing orders, like conflicting political ideologies (i.e. partisans).

The suffix clite in “heteroclite” and “homoclite” means “inclination” or direction and disposition (you can also find hétéroclite in French). A set, say a random group of people, is heteroclite when its elements exhibit diversity and “move towards different directions” so to speak.

When we employ those more accurate terms, we have the flexibility to qualify the various taxes into, for example, those that resemble a distributed network, others that look like a hierarchy (in the contemporary, ordinary sense), those that exhibit an absence of an archy or uppermost node (i.e. anarchy), and so on.

I must stress that I am not familiar with the field where the term “heterarchy” originated from or is widely used in. This is ultimately me putting forth an alternative as I have no intention to use “heterarchy” to signify “non-hierarchy” (and related). I will use my own words and refer the reader to this note if something is unclear. I believe I have justified myself. Even if I am wrong, I can at least claim that I tried. Life is simple.