Bateson, Gregory (1904-1980)

"Anthropologist, born in Grantchester, Cambridgeshire, son of biologist William Bateson. Studied physical anthropolgy at Cambridge, but made his career in the USA. With Margaret Mead he was involved in the culture-and-personality movement, publishing Balinese Character in 1942. Influenced by cybernetics, he went on to study problems of communication and learning among aquatic mammals and human schizophrenics. Later works include Mind and Nature (1978)."


I can't believe this brief biography neglected to mention Naven, along with Balinese Character his most respected and widely known work. Based on the same body of research as the Mead co-authorship, here Bateson first focuses on the schismogenic, or rift-forming, types of relationships people tend to enter into. It's really useful to have a game theory background when looking at this stuff, to see how something as seemingly abstract as the Prisoner's Dilemma can have immediate and concrete applications in human affairs in everything from domestic spats to the international nuclear arms race. Bateson believed that von Neuman's game theory would give the same scientific rigour to the anthropological sciences that Newton's concept of an idealized point weight did to the physical sciences.

I highly recommend Mind and Nature as it is a powerful introduction to Bateson's application of cybernetics and information theory to anthropology. If you've had a semester of psychology nothing in it should prove too difficult, although it's frustrating because you can't really see where he's going with all these separate threads until the last third or so of the book when he finally weaves them all together into an elegant tapestry.

Steps to an Ecology of Mind is an earlier anthology, reprinting most of his earlier journal publications and speeches. Much of it is very readable, especially the "metalogues" (dialogues about the nature of dialogue) with his daughter in the beginning. Of critical importance is his explication of his "double-bind" theory of schizophrenia which, quite frankly, I can't quite understand yet. Some of the dolphin stuff in here is very fun, and much less whacked-out "New-Agey" than John Lilly's cetacean research. Most powerfully, however, is his essay explaining just what he got out of studying the work of the great, pioneering Polish semanticist, Count Alfred Korzybski.

I haven't really looked through Angels Fear: Towards an Epistemology of the Sacred, which he cowrote with his daughter, Mary Catherine Bateson, but it seems that this one is mostly about reaching a theory of aesthetics and spirituality which is compatible with what we know about brains, minds, ecosystems, and the feedback relationships which appear to characterize them. (Frankly, talk of angels makes me want to puke, but that's just the rationalist in me.)

His final work, the posthumous collection A Sacred Unity: Further Steps to an Ecology of Mind edited by Rodney E. Donaldson is sadly out of print. This work is staggering in it's range and complexity; I've had to struggle to understand every part I undertook to read, even having to abandon a few sections out of total confusion, but every section I ended up wading through rewarded me with a little satori insight into the nature of things, how it's all strung together. I don't think anybody else, save possibly Teilhard deChardin, has done more to bring together the human/cultural/spiritual and mechanistic/scientific worldviews. In the interest of generating interest in his final book (without a clamor heard by the publishers, it'll never come back into print), I've decided to list the table of contents, to give a better idea of it's scope.

Contents

Part I: Form and Pattern in Anthropology

1. Cultural Determinants of Personality
2. Human Dignity and the Varieties of Civilization
3. Sex and Culture
4. Naven: Epilogue 1958
5. Distortions Under Culture Contact
6. Some Components of Socialization for Trance
7. From Anthropology to Epistemology

Part II: Form and Pathology in Relationship

8. The New Conceptual Frames for Behavioral Research
9. Cultural Problems Posed by a Study of Schizophrenic Process
10. A Social Scientist Views the Emotions
11. The Message of Reinforcement
12. The Double-Bind Theory -- Misunderstood?
13. The Growth of Paradigms for Psychiatry

Part III: Epistemology and Ecology

14. Mind/Environment
15. The Thing of It Is
16. A Formal Approach to Explicit, Implicit, and Embodied Ideas, and to Their Forms of Interaction
17. The Birth of a Matrix, or Double Bind and Epistemology
18. This Normative Natural History Called Epistemology
19. Our Own Metaphor: Nine Years After
20. The Science of Knowing
21. Men Are Grass: Metaphor and the World of Mental Process

Part IV: Health, Ethics, Aesthetics, and the Sacred

22. Language and Psychotherapy -- Freida Fromm-Reichmann's Last Project

23. The Moral and Aesthetic Structure of Human Adaptation

24. A Systems Approach
25. The Creature and Its Creations
26. Ecology of Mind: The Sacred
27. Intelligence, Experience, and Evolution
28. Orders of Change
29. The Case Against the Case for Mind/Body Dualism
30. Symptoms, Syndromes, and Systems
31. Seek the Sacred: Dartington Seminar
32. "Last Lecture"

One final note: you might think, especially upon reading the titles to chapters 9 and 13, above, that Bateson would offer a bridge between the humanistic and behavioristic schools of psychology. Alas, this is not so; in fact, Bateson could be a bit of a bastard at times. I cite as evidence his barking attitude towards a seminal humanistic psychologist, a live debate that is transcribed in Carl Rogers: Dialogues. (Amusingly enough, the debate itself constitutes an excellent example of complementary schismogenesis, each side pushing the other apart into further extremes in a sort of 'verbal arms race', a trap which Bateson should have been all-too-wary of falling into.) In the spirit of "If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him!" I don't think it really matters: we don't need to engage in fawning idolatry or hero-worship of any kind. We are all tentatively groping towards the "truth" (whatever that may be, as ultimately unknowable as it may be), and seeing our best minds occasionally reduced to bickering or partisan politics can have a humbling effect on us, a powerful underscoring of the need for a concilliatory approach between the sciences and humanities.

(Yes, this did appear on a website somewhere. But it was mine, so it's not really stealing!)

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