GREGORY BATESON (1904-1980)
ObituaryReprinted with permission from the American Anthropologist, Volume 84, Number 2, June 1982.
Gregory Bateson came from a distinguished line of English academics. His father, William, was one of the founders of modern genetics. His paternal grandfather, William Henry Bateson, had been the Master of St. John's, the Cambridge college in which Gregory matriculated, receiving his bachelor's degree (in natural sciences) in 1925 and his master's (in anthropology) in 1930 after a brief study under A. C. Haddon and field research in New Britain and New Guinea.
Little came from his first fieldwork among the Baining and Sulka people of New Britain, but the classic Naven (1936, 2nd ed. 1965) was the result of his work among the Iatmul, which began in 1929 and continued into the 1930s. His reputation in anthropology still rests to a considerable degree on this first book. Later, in the 1930s, he collaborated in field research in Bali with Margaret Mead, reported in Balinese Character (1942). In the 1940s and 1950s he brought his ethnographic method to bear on schizophrenia and other psychiatric phenomena (notably, disturbed communication within families) to considerable theoretical effect, and
Bateson never held a regular position in an academic department of anthropology. He was a fellow at St. Johns, Cambridge University, from 1931 until 1937, but spent a good deal of that period in New Guinea and the United States. He entered the United States as a permanent resident in 1940, and served in Asia in the O. S. S. during World War II. In the late 1940s, he held visiting appointments at the New School for Social Research and Harvard; later he held visiting appointments at Stanford, the University of Hawaii, and the University of California, Santa Cruz. His regular employment during much of his career was in medical institutions and laboratories for the study of animal behavior. Moreover, with the possible exception of a time during the late 1930s and 1940s, when concern with the relationship of culture to character and personality was more general than it has been since, he never stood near the center of contemporary anthropological interests. Although a general anthropological audience came to appreciate Naven in the late 1950s and the 1960s (25 years after its original publication), and although Steps to an Ecology of Mind made many of his essays published in obscure journals available to anthropologists and revealed to some readers new anthropological and intellectual horizons, he remained a deeply puzzling figure to a good many of his colleagues until the end of his life. His style, his concerns, his method, and his moral position all served to polarize his intellectual audience and, to a large degree, to make the enthusiasts and the skeptical puzzled about each other's responses. We wish to consider here some of the roots of the puzzlement.
Then there was the way in which the vision was presented, especially his style of oral presentation. This style worked compellingly for some, but it irritated and confused others. One of us last saw him giving a farewell lecture, or more properly presiding over a happening, at a series gloomily entitled "Famous Last Words" at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London, as part of a series that was to include the supercharismatic likes of Mother Theresa and the Dalai Lama. The intense and distinguished audience (a generally receptive group, in contrast to the annoyance Bateson stirred up in some English reviewers and cultural guardians, who were given to such remarks as that he wrote "from the intellectual lotus land of California, where eclectic theories and mystical philosophizing lie thick as Los Angeles smog. . . ." [Times Literary Supplement, Nov. 21, 1980, p. 1314, Review of Mind and Nature]) heard and watched a typical Batesonian performance. Hair and suit rumpled as always, sprawling into and over a chair which could not properly contain his six-foot-five-inch body, a mysterious smile on his face, he started somewhere in the middle of things and proceeded to ponder out loud in front of the audience. As always, he resisted preexisting structures (David Lipset has shown how this was a central theme in Bateson's career), in this case a prepared lecture or even notes for a lecture. As always, he put himself at risk in front of an audience in a procedure that, as those who attended various of his public performances will remember, sometimes failed as didactic lectures.
But at another level, as he would have characteristically put it, he risked nothing at all, for at this level he was illustrating something rather than talking about it. He was not being a lecturer, presenting material, but an exemplar, representing it. He was performing a "metalogue," a communication whose form is meant to illustrate its content. What he was trying to illustrate, as always, was that authentic, minimally erroneous communication and thought is responsive to the moment, to the condition of the presenter, the state of his understanding of his problem, and his sense of the audience. This involved considerable risk, and required some sense of trust, usually amply justified, in his listeners. But it was not for everyone.
This public stance was no different from the way he related to others in dyads and small groups, although in these situations he had clearer "feedback" to work with. Those who were susceptible to encounter with Bateson experienced an intense moment-to-moment collaboration involving an unusual sense of augmentation of intelligence. As Margaret Mead put it:
Bateson collaborated in this way not only with Mead, but also with John von Neumann, Warren McCullock, Claude Shannon, Norbert Weiner, and others in the development of cybernetic theory; with Jurgen Ruesch on psychosocial communication theory; with Don Jackson, Jay Haley, and John Weakland and others on theories of schizophrenia and family pathology; and with a large network of colleagues in the social sciences, psychiatry, ethology, ecology, evolutionary theory, and family therapy on the cluster of interrelated problems he addressed in the course of his life's work. Such intense collaboration makes it difficult to evaluate fully Bateson's individual contribution to the groups, and to the various sets of problems he addressed. He would, in large part, have assessed the question of his "individual contribution" as itself an error of some sort, since it claims that it is a member of the group, not the group itself, which is doing the important thinking. (The proceedings of one of these groups, a Wenner-Gren conference on "The Effects of Conscious Purpose on Human Adaptation," is reported in illuminating detail in Mary Catherine Bateson's Our Own Metaphor ). But those who have collaborated with him can attest that his contributions were central and seminal.
Bateson was fond of saying, in one of his analogies from one kind of system to another, that the mind is an ecological system and that introduced ideas, like introduced seeds, can only take root and flourish according to the nature of the system receiving them. He repeated his messages innumerable times to innumerable audiences, the redundancy being, he felt, necessary if what he had to say was to be truly heard. But he abhorred competitive struggle in the introduction of ideas, believing that it inevitably resulted in complicated forms of resistance and distortion.
The bookish reviewer is irritated, and leans to the first choice.
Bateson belonged to no academic discipline. In his formation and career he was an "original," an "autodidact." His knowledge and sense of problem were formed in an exceedingly rich early intellectual milieu, by his lifelong informal intellectual network (which included a good sample of the century's better thinkers), by a genius for close observation of what fascinated him (essentially the structures and processes of the reality created through communication), and perhaps by some painful alienation from the ordinary. Although highly cultured in his understanding of European tradition, he was no scholar of contemporary documents in the social sciences. His favorite references are to William Blake, Samuel Butler, Larmarck, Alfred Wallace, Darwin, C. H. Waddington, R. G. Collingwood, Whitehead, Russell, the Bible, St. Augustine, Von Neumann, Norbert Wiener, and Lewis Carroll.
In part, his idiosyncratic path was a result of his institutional isolation. But he was not essentially a scholar, a critic of other's writings, so much as a natural scientist, for whom "nature was his book" is no banal characterization. He used anything that he could learn from others, integrated into his own vision (for he was polar opposite of an eclectic) to read that book.
Bateson's formal training under A. C. Haddon, whom he met late in his undergraduate career, was by present standards brief and sketchy. And although he wished to escape from zoology because his interest in it was "purely intellectual and not heartfelt" (as he wrote his parents in 1925), his anthropological concerns were rooted in the natural biological sciences, not only as a result of his undergraduate training but from the intense informal education he got during his childhood and adolescence from his father and his father's circle. His father's interest in biological morphology (particularly questions of symmetry and asymmetry) and its generation, maintenance, and disruption was shared by the son and, enlarged to include the morphology of behavior, constituted a leitmotiv of his life's work from his concept of processes of schismogenesis in Iatmul culture (Naven 1936, 1965) to the concerns of the book, Mind and Nature, which appeared a year before he died.
His interest in behavioral morphology, which for him involved structures of meaning and communication, led him from his early career to be distrustful of simple reductionistic models of cause and effect, which seemed to leave out too much and to distort understanding. He felt that explanations (and thought in general) that were not of the proper complexity in relation to the events he was trying to describe, were not only false in ways that he tried to specify, but were dangerous in that they led to destructive action. Bateson felt deeply that ways of understanding the phenomena of the world of communication necessarily have active moral consequences. We will return to this.
Someone has said that all thinkers (seen, of course, from the opposite camp) are either simpleminded or muddleheaded. For the simpleminded, Bateson with his subtle and complex models was a prince of the muddleheaded. In fact, this is the blindness of the two camps. Bateson's essays in understanding (including his criticism of the limits and implications of less adequate models) set standards, we believe, of logical coherence unexcelled by anyone writing in the social sciences today. Each of his essays assumes understanding of much that he has written before; but when they are understood in their entirety, a clear, integrated, and powerful vision emerges.
However, the interrelated web of his ideas, as well as his special point of view, makes it difficult to understand fully many of his essays in isolation (and this is true all the more of isolated phrases) until the point of view and general outlines of his system of ideas are grasped. A sentence such as "the transform of a difference travelling in a circuit is the elementary idea" (1972:549) or the significance of the "double bind" theory of schizophrenia requires some fairly elaborate contextual placement.
We believe that the kind of system and the way of thinking that Bateson worked toward provide intellectual tools that are much closer to contemporary ideas of how phenomena are organized than the received assumptions that he worked to modify. His seminal power lies in the articulation of his insights and in his pointing out and illuminating the kinds of problems and paradoxes that are the residuals of worn out paradigms. The sketchy selection of issues and approaches to which we are limited in this short appreciation are necessarily inadequate, and we must refer readers back to his writings for clarification and perspective.
Bateson was interested in something beyond ethnography and the description of either "raw data" or of data related to "middle-range analytic problems" such as, say, the organization of kinship systems. Terence Turner (1980), in a review of Mind and Nature, has observed that some readers and listeners tended to dismiss Bateson's work because he tended to move from general principles of the highest order of abstraction directly to (and from) examples, which he connected by metaphor or analogy, without seeming to come to grips with middle-range analytic problems.
Many investigators, especially in the behavioral sciences, seem to believe that scientific advance is predominantly inductive, and should be. . . . They believe that progress is made by the study of the "raw" data, leading to new heuristic concepts. The heuristic concepts are then to be regarded as "working hypotheses" and tested against more data. Gradually, it is hoped, the heuristic concepts will be corrected and improved until at last they are worthy of a place in the list of fundamentals. About fifty years of work in which thousands of clever men have had their share have, in fact, produced a rich crop of several hundred heuristic concepts, but, alas, scarcely a single principle worthy of a place in the list of fundamentals. [1972:xix]
In Bateson's view the heuristic concepts generally employed in social science explanation are in a class with the "dormitive principle" made to account for opium's soporific qualities in Moliere's The Doctor In Spite of Himself.
Bateson argued that many aspects of the fundamental structure and processes relevant to the segment of the world involving communication, messages, and meaning had to be carefully distinguished from those that were relevant to other aspects of the world. When you kick a stone, he would say, the movement of the stone is determined by its mass, and by the energy and direction of your kick; when you kick a dog it moves with the energy of its own metabolism because it understands something.
His arguments about these distinctions were to clear the ground. In the physical world, "chains of cause and effect. . . can be referred to forces and impacts" (1972:xxi). But in the world of meaning (and here is one of his examples at the service of a search for fundamentals):
Bateson sometimes used the terms pleroma and creatura, which he borrowed from Jung (who claimed to be following Gnostic usage) for the two domains.
These differences are the subset of changes ("the differences which make a difference") within or environing a "system" which is ordered in such a way that it responds to them, so that they are for that system meaningful messages.
These differences and the systems for which they are significant, (their elements, structures, class, and species characteristics) were what concerned him. Bateson tried to work out some of the ways in which the "creatura" was structured, maintained, and learned, something of its evolutionary and adaptive features, and of its pathologies. For this he extended the idea of "mind."
(We will note below a further extension of the idea of "mind" in his later thinking.)
His interrelated concepts of end-linkages, levels of communication, schismogenesis, the double-bind theory of schizophrenia, the evolutionary implications of play, the significance of context and context markers, the specific formal properties of analogical communication, ways of structuring and communicating relationships, were all (in addition to a large numbers of less formalized conceptions) attempts to develop analytic tools for dealing with the "creatura" in what he thought were the terms adequate to it. Central to all this was a powerful learning theory (developed in a series of papers in Steps to an Ecology of Mind) which includes the concept of a "second level learning" (deuterolearning), suggesting how features of world view and aspects of character (both culturally agreed on and individual) glossed by terms such as "fatalism." "instrumentalism," "passivity," "free will," and so on, are learned, and how they come to be the "common sense" of groups. He also suggests in considerations of "third level learning" how the certainties of second-level learning may, under quite precisely specifiable conditions, be broken down or "transcended," an idea which has interesting implications for superordinate systems of social control and integration.
Bateson came to see the sociopsychological forms with which he was concerned as related to larger processes of evolution and adaptation. He discerned systematic relations of a number of kinds between processes of evolution viewed as phylogenetic "learning," and the learning which takes place at the individual and cultural level. Important aspects of his thinking about the relationship of the mobile and dynamic processes of adaptation in individual organisms (such as tanning in response to sunlight or individual learning) to less mobile aspects of adaptation (such as skin color prior to tanning) are presented in a dense, closely argued, and important paper, The Role of Somatic Change in Evolution (1963, reprinted in Bateson 1972). The paper, which is difficult to summarize briefly, deals with the "economics of flexibility," what Bateson took to be logically necessary relations between mobile adaptive mechanisms and more stable structures, in relation to aspects of time sequences, to the magnitude and nature of disturbances within the adapting system, and to aspects of hierarchy or "logical typing." The details of his argument, which have had an important influence on some biologists (e.g., Slobodkin and Rapoport 1974) have significant implications for the understanding of the "economics of flexibility" in other types of systems, including sociocultural and psychological ones.
In another essay, Style, Grace and Information in Primitive Art (1972:128-152) Bateson discusses an "economics of consciousness" that is formally similar to his arguments about the "economics of flexibility." Because the dataprocessing capacity of consciousness is limited, it must be conserved. For this, it is necessary to "sink" into the unconsciousness of habit, knowledge, and skills which will then continue to seem true, apt, or necessary regardless of environmental change, maintaining in an accessible "place" only that which must be continuously modified. But this "sinking" of knowledge is done at a price. That which is "sunk" becomes inaccessible and difficult or impossible to change.
These kinds of arguments are based in large part on analogies. In his search for significant similarities and contrasts in systems involving communication and meaning, Bateson believed (and here he picks up emphases of Vico and such Romantic protestors against empiricism as Blake) that it was legitimate to use intuitions based un aspects of order glimpsed in the examination of any complex "cybernetic" system (and perhaps based, ultimately, on our own sense of ourselves as organized systems of person/environment) to explore other organized realms. He called this abduction "the lateral extension of abstract components of description" (1979:142), which he took to be as important as deduction and induction. "Metaphor, dream, parable, allegory, the whole of art, the whole of [social?] science, the whole of religion, the whole of poetry, totemism . . . the organization of facts in comparative anatomy - all these are instances or aggregates of instances of abduction. . . ." He then, characteristically, pushed the idea further in his search for analogies of order. "But obviously the possibility of abduction extends to the very roots also of physical science, Newton's analysis of the solar system and the periodic table of the elements being historical examples" (1979: 142-143).
Bateson's growing theoretical emphasis the adaptional nature of human thought and behavior led to a close fit between his intellectual and moral positions. He was deeply disturbed by the decimation of aboriginal populations, by the degradation of ecological systems, by economic oppression, and by senseless wars and arms races; but he took them and the countless other disasters and fearsome omens of contemporary life to be manifestations of a limited number of deeper disorders of a systemic nature, some or all of which could be defined in the formal terms of cybernetic systems of communication and meaning that comprised, for him, life, mind, and society. One of the causes of these breakdowns, he thought, involves the peculiar nature of human consciousness as an adaptive system. In his view, as we have noted, consciousness is dominated by purposefulness, and purposeful thought has a linear structure. That is, it establishes goals and devises means for attaining them without being governed by, or even aware of, the circular and reticulate structure of cause and effect that orders the systems in which purposeful action takes place.
It should be noted that the primacy of this kind of "consciousness" (which is more a matter of discursive, culturally prescribed "rational thought" than, say, Freudian "consciousness") in mental activity, the range of situations to which it is thought to apply, and above all its influence on action and the available power coupled to it, vary among individuals and groups. Thus, "when implemented by modern technology a consciousness dominated by purpose becomes disruptive of the balances between individuals, their societies and their ecosystems" (1972:434).
The cure for the inadequacies of consciousness, of purposive rationality, is not to reject it in favor of a passionate nonrationality (and here Bateson separates himself from the extreme Romantic position) but to augment and complete it. For Bateson the inadequacies of linear, purposive, discursive processes of consciousness are corrected by enlisting the aid of the nondiscursive, pattern-comprehending, emotionally saturated "primary processes," in Freud's sense, processes which to Bateson, however, quoting Blake's "A tear is an intellectual thing," represented legitimate aspects of knowing. Art, aspects of religion, and complex symbolic form are vehicles for conveying necessary information. Taking his metaphor here from religious language, art, for example, is "part of man's quest for grace." He thought of grace as involving the integration of "diverse parts of the mind - especially those multiple levels of which one extreme is called 'consciousness' and the other the 'unconscious' (1972:129). When the world is viewed as circuits of information and meaning in which the submind of the actor participates, then the world's problems centrally include, as we have noted, failures of conscious understanding that involve for Bateson errors in the epistemology of individuals.
Bateson's intellectual analysis, then, had deeply moral or - if one prefers - ideological implications. This was a source of his attraction to some, a problem for others. He felt that the proper understanding of mind or "creatura" entailed an understanding of proper action (including when not to act), as an understanding of human physiology does to the ideal physician. Starting from such a conviction he had to explain the sources of what he took to be human error, and his analysis of consciousness or, in some moods, "Western" consciousness, derived from this. In his morality, ignorance was responsible for evil.
It is of some value, we think, to anthropologists to comment on the growth of his moral position. Bateson's early work on the patterning of culture, of the deutero truths (that is, what is true is what a particular community agrees to be true) that grew out of the structure of experience and learning (deuterolearning) in such communities, shares with the anthropology of the time two morally significant assumptions. First, the patterning of the system has ontological priority over the "individual" (the latter being a problematic construct to Bateson). This dissolving of the individual as a focus of praise or blame, of responsibility for noncivilized behavior (to take it back a step to Boas), was an important liberal response to colonial and racist ideologies. (An interesting ideological climax of this stance was Ronald Laing's antipsychiatry, influenced by Bateson, which saw the family system as responsible for the victim's schizophrenia.) Second, and allied to the decentering of the individual, was an implication that each culture provided an alternate, equally valid, and equally arbitrary way of phrasing reality and creating the illusion of sanity.
This relativisitic assumption about the cultural creation of reality out of the "unpunctuated flow of events," this devaluation of innocent common sense about the realness of the world (to which Bateson's analyses so powerfully contributed) with its implication for tolerance but beyond this resignation, solipsism, or worse, was gradually countered in Bateson's thought.
The tension is conveyed in an afterword he wrote in 1977 to a collection of celebratory essays, About Bateson:
He was concerned with the limits of the cultural determination of truth in various ways. He asked in speculations on "third level truth" what happens when learning involves the submitting of cultural truths to some more complex learning, such as the learning occurring out of the intimate knowledge of two different cultural systems. One possibility was a transcending of the particular system of cultural common sense to some more general understanding of the human condition. Another probe at the limits of relativism was the study of those systems which were pathological as systems of communication, which had to break down in whole, or in relation to some component. The doublebind theory was concerned with such systems.
The moral stance here is not that different from cultural relativism in its motivation. Both positions - a radical relativism and a critique of pride, power, and narrowly defined pragmatic thinking as pathological - are criticisms of Western attitudes of superiority and exploitation over other peoples and over nature. But the two are profoundly different in their content. The notion of cultural relativism, as vague as it may be, has difficulty accommodating the notion of error. There is little place in a radical doctrine of cultural relativism, as there is in Bateson's developed conception, for the possibility that an entire culture might be suffering from systemic disorders of internal adjustment or external adaptiveness.
Much of this draws on a very old intellectual tradition, going back, as Bateson himself remarked, at least to Heraclitus who noted for example the danger that reason at the service of private advantage posed to Logos, the cosmic order. Bateson acknowledged and drew support from many illustrious progenitors. Much of his work was highly innovative - double-bind theory, schismogenesis, the logical typing of aspects of learning, and many other ideas that time must test. Perhaps above all he was a channel through which certain new ways of looking at things (or revitalized old ways) flowed to a segment of for the most part American and English intellectual workers (his works are now being translated into French and Spanish) in half a dozen fields. He gave some of these ideas clearer form and applied them to novel events and materials.
He would have considered a valedictory article concerned with his originality and individuality to have missed the point. As he put it,
He had extended his idea of "mind," beyond the skin. He extended it once again, particularly in his last book Mind and Nature. He elaborates there the characteristics of systems which seem to him to have the essential features that also characterize human mind, and he found them essential aspects of living systems (including systems such as ecological systems made up of "living elements") in general, as well as complex cybernetic systems constructed by man.
He tried to grasp the intellectual and moral implications of this view of the individual as a subsection and representative of such more general processes.
And last, there is death. It is understandable that, in a civilization which separates mind from body, we should either try to forget death or to make mythologies about the survival of transcendent mind. But if mind is immanent not only in those pathways of information which are located inside the body but also in external pathways, then death takes on a different aspect. The individual nexus of pathways which I call "me" is no longer so precious because that nexus is only part of a larger mind. The ideas which seemed to be me can also become immanent in you. May they survive - if true. [1972:465]
ROBERT I. LEVY University of California, San Diego
GREGORY BATESON: Biography | Bibliography | 2004 Centennial
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