Gregory Bateson (1904-1980)
By Alexandru Anton-Luca * Posted May 1998
- Biographical Details
- Brief Batesonian Glossary
- Bateson’s Place Among Other Intellectuals
- Steps to an Ecology of Mind and A Sacred Unity: Further Steps to an Ecology of Mind
- Books by and About Gregory Bateson
- Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity
- Bateson Internet Links
Gregory Bateson’s was a remarkable career. Because his research crossed disciplinary boundaries of cybernetics, animal communication, ethnography, psychology, and biological evolution, it is particularly hard to unify and summarize his contribution. Critics have highlighted the concepts of system and environment as central in his work and thinking. This is meant to explain how a change in some part of a system results in responses or feedback from other parts of the system, in a process that concurrently defines the chief characteristics of its component parts. Because of the breadth of his interests, Bateson never became a central figure in any discipline, although he achieved a certain degree of popularity outside of the academy. Bateson’s presence in anthropological writings today is largely limited to footnotes and congratulatory notes. His work in cybernetics is receiving renewed attention in cultural studies approaches to systems theory, such as in the work of Cary Eugene Wolfe, faculty member at Indiana University.
Gregory Bateson was born in Grantchester, England on the 9th of May, 1904. He had two siblings. His mother was Caroline Beatrice Durham and his father was William Bateson, a renowned geneticist at Cambridge University. From 1917 to 1921 he followed his father in studying zoology at Charterhouse School in London. He continued at St. John’s College, Cambridge, where he obtained a B.Sc. in biology (1922-1925). He made a brief trip to the Galapagos Islands and started his studies in anthropology under A.C. Haddon. He pursued his graduate studies at Cambridge from 1927-9 conducting anthropological fieldwork with the Baining and Sulka in New Britain (1927-28). The Baining did not easily lend themselves to observation and he considered this early work to be a failure. He was Lecturer in Linguistics at the University of Sydney, Australia under A.R. Radcliffe-Brown (1928). He did fieldwork in New Guinea with the Iatmul (1929-30) and wrote up his findings for his M.A. in anthropology (1930). During 1934 he lectured at both Columbia University and the University of Chicago. He was fellow at St. John’s College, Cambridge (1931-37), during which time he returned to New Guinea for fieldwork with Margaret Mead (1932). They married in 1936, the year during which he published further results of his New Guinea work in an ethnography, Naven (1936, 1st edition). Bateson and Mead conducted fieldwork together in Bali from 1936 to 1938. This period resulted in their co-authored Balinese Character: A Photographic Analysis (1942). Bateson returned to New Guinea in 1939.
In 1939, one year after the birth of their daughter Bateson and Mead settled down in the United States. Bateson aided in the war effort but did not become a naturalized citizen until 1956. He worked as Anthropological Film Analyst at the Museum of Modern Art in New York (1942-43) analyzing German propaganda films. He was Lecturer at Columbia University (1943-44) and worked for the United States Office of Strategic Services in Southeast Asia (1944-47) where he received a Guggenheim Fellowship (1946-47). He occupied posts in China, Burma, Sri Lanka, and India in this latter period. He was Visiting Professor of Anthropology at the New School for Social Research in New York (1946-47) and at Harvard University (1947-48). From 1948-49 he taught at the University of California in San Francisco. Bateson and Mead separated in 1946 but continued to interact intellectually, organizing the Macy Conferences on cybernetics together.
Bateson’s move to the West Coast also marks a turn away from anthropology. He worked for the Langley-Porter Clinic in San Francisco as Research Associate in Psychiatry and Communications from 1949 through 1951). Bateson divorced Mead in 1950 and married Elizabeth Summer in 1951. Their marriage produced three children before they divorced in 1958. He bore the title of Ethnologist and Researcher while researching alcoholism at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Palo Alto, California. He worked with psychiatrist Jurgen Ruesch at the University of California Medical School (1949-1950). Their joint effort resulted in a book, Communication: The Social Matrix of Psychiatry (1951). In 1962, Bateson received the Freida Fromm-Reichmann Award for Research in Schizophrenia. He was Visiting Professor of Anthropology at Stanford University (1951-62). As he developed an interest in non-human communication and learning, he started to observe otters and then octopuses. He and third wife Lois Cammack took care of the several octopuses, keeping them first in the morgue of the Palo Alto hospital and then in their living room. Bateson and Cammack married in 1961, and they had one daughter.
Bateson’s interest in non-human species lead him to break from psychiatry. From 1963-4, he was Associate Research Director in Ethnology and worked for the Communications Research Institute, Virgin Islands. In 1964 he received a Career Development Award from the National Institutes of Mental Health. From 1964-72 he served as chief of the biological Relations Division at the Oceanic Institute, Waimanalo, Hawaii. Following this position, he became Professor of Anthropology and Ethnology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, remaining until 1978. He was appointed to the Board of Regents by former governor Jerry Brown and served from 1976 to 1978. From 1978 to 1980 he was Scholar-in-Residence at Esalen Institute in California. He was also Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He died in San Francisco on July 4th, 1980.
I have not been able to find many real-life impressions of Gregory Bateson. Richard Wilk, Professor of Anthropology at Indiana University, recalls that not only were his writings required in his undergraduate courses but Bateson himself had become a cult figure (personal communication, May 6, 1998). Whether his ideas were well understood or not, Bateson seems to have been a popular intellectual figure around the same time that Carl Jung and Herman Hesse’s works gained popularity in America. Clifford Geertz got to know and spent time with Bateson on several occasions, perhaps because of their common interests in Bali and New Guinea. His impressions of Bateson’s work is of being spread out, and perhaps having congealed towards the end of his life. Like others, Geertz points out that Bateson owes his character and upper-class mentality to his descent from a British family of scientists. Geertz recalls that Bateson possessed a lively and restless mind, kept nosing in a variety of subjects and got bored easily (personal communication, April 2, 1998). Robin Kornman, Literature Professor at University of Wisconsin, recalls Gregory Bateson when he was at Naropa Institute in Denver, Colorado. I have not been able to pinpoint the exact dates or other information regarding this period of Bateson’s life except that it happened sometimes in the 1970s. At this time, Gregory Bateson participated in a number of seminars. It is here that he must have first met Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela, two expatriate scholars from Chile who later published on cybernetics and systems theory. I understand that while in Colorado, Bateson was also a practitioner of Dzokchen, a group of tantric practices in Tibetan Buddhism. I have not been able to confirm these details (Kornman personal communication, July 30, 1998).
Naven is a thorough methodological critique which does not stand out among the contemporary current of reflexive writing, but which caused considerable interest when it was first published in 1936. In his 1958 Epilogue to the second edition of the book, Bateson reevaluates the importance of this early work. He explains his purpose as wanting to study the phenomenon of explanation, or fitting data together, rather than to produce a straight ethnography. The book takes into account three levels of description: ethnographic data, arrangement of the data to show various cultural aspects, and self-reflective narrative of the methodology used. In his conclusion to the original 1936 epilogue to the book (finalized days before publication), Bateson states that his study convinced him that scientists’ theories are descriptive of the scientists’ processes of knowing and no more than that. In 1958 Batesonian language this translates into mistaking the map for the territory and making a fallacy of logical typing (explained later). It is revealing to see how Bateson’s early attempts at dealing with these complexities foreshadows some of the reflexive influences pervading anthropological writing of the 80s and 90s. In the second edition (1958) of the 1936 edition he adds a commentary critiquing the initial writing, much like Steven Feld in Sounds and Sentiment (1990, 2nd ed.) and Michael Jackson in At Home in the World.
Most concretely, Naven is a book about the kinship system of the Iatmul, a tribal group in New Guinea. In it, Bateson describes the wau (mother’s brother) and laua (sister’s child) relationship by highlighting the role of the naven ritual in maintaining kinship links and clan relations. The naven ritual itself is a celebration of various types of laua behavior by the wau. Such behavior can include homicide or hunting, the first occurrence of acts such as cutting a palm tree, dancing, and changes in social status. Bateson’s theoretical schema in Naven contains his formulations of the theory of schismogenesis: learning leads to either symmetrical schismogenesis, which is directed towards more intense rivalry, or towards complementary schismogenesis, which assumes higher differentiation. The 1958 Epilogue is a direct critique of his 1936 work where Bateson placed the two trends of schismogenesis in a functional relation, as if the two worked together to balance each other out. In the 1958 Epilogue he differentiates between changes in variables, which belong to the system and can be accorded to logical types within the system, with changes in parameters. Parameters and their corresponding changes are defined by the observer (science is an example, structuralism is another) and cannot be put in the same class with variables. Bateson’s autocritique is that the wau-laua relationship, along with his work on schismogenesis, is not a closed system. The wau-laua relationship responds to a complex array of influences and other systems belonging to the same culture, some of which are observable and others less so. Bateson’s argument in Naven, that knowledge belonged to a hierarchy of classes, is variously elaborated and elucidated in most of his later work.
Steps to an Ecology of Mind (1972) and A Sacred Unity: Further Steps to an Ecology of Mind (1991)
These two volumes include a wide range of Bateson’s scattered essays. They are grouped under headings such as “Form and Pattern in Anthropology,” “Form and Pathology in Relationship,” “Epistemology and Ecology,” and so on, leading to the core of Bateson’s thought in these matters. A Sacred Unity also contains a 22-page, in-depth bibliography of Bateson spanning his published work from 1925 to 1991. For more
information, the reader is directed to the Bateson archive located in the Special Collections section of the UC Santa Cruz library.
One of the delightful aspects of reading Bateson are his “metalogues,” dialogues between him and an imaginary young and delightfully curious daughter. These begin with the daughter asking a basic question such as “Daddy, why do things get in a muddle?”, or “Daddy, why do things have outlines?”, setting off an exchange which allows Bateson to discuss communication theory, perception, and so on. Many such examples are collected in Steps to an Ecology of Mind.
Of particular interest in Steps are a number of essays. In “Style, Grace, and Information in Primitive Art,” Bateson discusses how grace in art depends on the level of integration between conscious and unconscious elements. Cross-cultural statements regarding grace in art can be made according to the “success” of the integration, even if the critic and piece of art belong to different cultures. The bulk of the essay elaborates how such integration is coded in a piece of art. “Cybernetics of ‘Self’: A Theory of Alcoholism” is an illuminating piece on how the premises of Alcoholics Anonymous very nearly coincide with an epistemology of cybernetics. Bateson describes how alcoholic intoxication leads addicted alcoholics to a “more correct state of mind” and that sobriety for such individuals operates according to an epistemology opposed to systems theory. “Form, Substance, and Difference” is a clearly-written piece which makes a good introductory navigation guide for Bateson’s use of basic ideas such as information, message, difference, difference of a difference, and map and territory.
Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity (1979)
Mind and Nature was the last major work Bateson finished before his death in 1980. This book presents his thinking up to that point and is written in a lucid, integrated way. It has the feel of a summary directed at a general audience, but the nature of Bateson’s work is so dispersed that any reader new to him will likely find some aspect of the book challenging. Bateson’s is an ambitious project. He presents a holistic perspective based on cybernetic principles with which he tries to explain, basically, how the world works, and how the universe holds together. He sees nature and mind as forming one organism and discusses the implications of this worldview, such as the necessary inter-relatedness of form and process. His attempt, which pulls together all of his previous work, illustrates the pattern which connects, a meta-pattern or pattern of patterns.
Bateson’s ideas are broad, yet he does not let himself be seduced by rhetorical detours. He introduces his main points early on, and
in doing so he lays down the first step of his argumentative technique. He initiates multiple argumentative threads, switching between and overlapping them at his convenience, and then ties them together tightly by the end of the book. His logic and connecting pattern could not be simpler, but too often so only in hindsight. To illustrate this idea, Bateson points out the hierarchy of relations between a crab and a lobster. The segmentation of the crab, or bilateral symmetry, constitute patterns within an individual and are first-order connections. The connection by pattern between the crab and lobster, or phylogenetic homology, are second-order connections. However, the comparison between crab and lobster can be likened to the comparison between, say, a dog and a rat, these being third-order connections. It is this type of thinking that flavors Bateson’s approach.
This is only the beginning. For Bateson, the pattern which connects is “primarily a dance of interacting parts and [is] only secondarily pegged down by various sorts of physical limits and by those limits which organisms characteristically impose” (1979: 14). There is relevance, or connectedness between the internal parts of an organism. There is also context, which is the basis for meaning. Temporal context intersects with spatial context and shows the continuity of interaction between creature and environment. And so, the definition of something is based on relation and not on what it pretends to be in itself: “all communication necessitates context, there is no meaning, and…contexts confer meaning because there is classification of contexts” (1979: 18).
Science cannot help at this impasse because it is nothing more than a mode of perception. It can improve and disprove hypotheses but it can never prove truth as the identity of description and described. Science can therefore be a probe but it cannot prove. The difference between the description and the described, Bateson’s nail to the coffin of science’s ontological priority, is that of classification to a thing (something described) or of map to territory. Objective experience is therefore impossible and classification is not just perception but also introduction of new, unconscious information. This process, where unconscious perception based on presuppositions results in conscious products, is Bateson’s empirical epistemology in a nutshell. This epistemology, because it is mostly unconscious, is difficult to change. However, although free will does not directly affect perception, it can do so through long, conscientious practice.
All of this sets the ground for a theory of circular causal systems as opposed to lineal, cause and effect thinking. He employs such systems for their explanatory value, as explanations consisting of “an abstract tautology onto which the description can be mapped” (1979: 209). In essence, this theory states that “a change in any part of the circle can be regarded as cause for change at a later time in any variable anywhere in the circle” (1979: 66). Therefore, “effects of events at any point in the circuit can be carried all around to produce changes at that point of origin” (1979: 116). Simplistically, in a thermostat-room temperature system (a two-component system), changes in the thermostat determines the room temperature and room temperature determines changes in the thermostat.
In Bateson’s usage, systems are always formed by at least two sites, and they interact through exchanges of information or messages. In such an exchange there is a sender, perhaps a generator of random events such as raindrops or the cries of a baby. It is the recipient of the message that creates context, as would an open car window or a worried mother. In such a stochastic process the interconnectedness of the system is manifested in the recipient as a readiness: “The energy for the response or effect was available in the respondent before the event occurred which triggered it” (1979: 113). In Bateson’s example of the horse-man system, he calls this relationship “partial mobility;” the man can only take the horse to the water but cannot make it drink, and the horse cannot drink unless taken to the water.
This thing which travels, information, is the difference that results from the comparison of two things (double description) and is at the heart of his logical typing theory. This theory can be traced all the way back to Naven and purports that the world has multiple versions, or that two viewpoints are better (more descriptively valid) than one. In my understanding, it is like the difference between bilingualism and proficiency in only one language. Someone who refers to water as “water” functions at a lower level of abstraction and generalization than one who knows the same thing as “water” and “eau.” If “water” is a unit, than “water” and “eau” suggest a classification of units, a higher logical typing. Putting this class next to one that includes “carrot” and “cracker” suggests yet a higher class, that of “edibles.” “Edibles” is in itself is a class of classes, at an even higher logical typing. Similarly, monocular vision differs from binocular vision in that the latter adds a unique quality, depth, that is not found in the former type. Depth of vision cannot be explained from an epistemological stance based on monocular vision, and classes of logical typing are not reducible to one another.
Logical types form a hierarchy and are analogous to the example of map and territory. Territory can be mapped variously, or maps can give different readings of the same territory. A map can become the territory for a new map, establishing the hierarchy of logical types, since the object that is talked about is never the same as the object itself. The moral here is to be conscious of comparing items from the same logical type since jumping logical types invites errors: the map is not the territory. In considering crime, for example, Bateson argues that since “crime” is a higher logical typing than “criminal action,” to punish criminal actions will not extinguish crime. Such is the thousand year old fallacy in criminology. There is a profound difference between changing the structure of a system and its components, the former being considerably more difficult to do. Bateson’s double bind theory is a formulation of this process. He uses it to explain schizophrenic behavior, and it has since been greatly influential in family therapy.
Recalling that the message travels around and inevitably reaches its starting position, or that a change in A causes a change in B, when the effect comes back to A it finds A in a different state than when it left it. That is, A has changed, it is not the same ‘A’ anymore. Also, as the message loops around the system, it recursively conveys information about the whole system. Interaction contains three components, stimulus, (reinforcing) response (to stimulus), and (resulting reinforcing) reinforcement (to response), and so on, which acts in a spiraling pattern of interaction. As the terminology indicates, interaction through the passing of time adds complexity to the message and also validates the system (or relationship). The mutually reinforcing forces within a system or organism increase stability and hence rigidity at the cost of adaptability. The more integrated a culture is with its environment, the more vulnerable either becomes to a change in the other. Change is possible when contradictions are allowed to exist, but it must cohere to the internal demands of the organism and the external demands of the environment.
The growing complexity of the message looping though a system and crossing its starting point therefore feeds back into the system and encourages or hinders change, having a positive or negative influence. The calibrations or readjustments in message according to feedback alternate successively and are self-corrective, cybernetic processes. Successive calibration cycles take into account all previous cycles and the previous cycles’ learning from their previous cycles in a hierarchy of orders of recursiveness. This dialectical pattern between units and classes of units connects form and process in a zigzag alternation of the pattern which connects.
For Bateson we are parts of a living world, and by ‘living’ I take it that he means exerting reciprocal influence on our habitat or environment. Bateson’s ‘form and pattern’ epistemology is teleologically oriented to address the survival of living species, which ultimately rests on the ability to change. At this point the implications of human actions in the future of the human race gather a certain gravity and immediacy. The balance for change lies somewhere between complete stability and utter chaos, which are qualities that describe any system. A well-integrated and smoothly-functioning system is rigid and prone to resist change. Reciprocally, a poorly-integrated system is inefficient, but easily adaptable to change. In practical terms, in a people-social system relationship (where the two components reinforce each other), ideas such as nature can be explained either in terms of the people or the social system. Thus, any presupposition exists in a complex, mutually-supporting network. To be effective, change must take into account both the organism’s internal demands and the environment’s external requirements if it is to withstand the system’s tendency to replicate itself. System-level change can occur only if the system as a whole can relax and allow for inner contradictions. It is only after the change has entered the system, affected all of its components, and affected the self-recursivity of the system that the system can both retain the change and increase its efficiency.
Bateson’s literary output is overwhelming, and I will not make a pretense of summarizing it. Gregory Bateson’s contributions influenced the early days of cybernetics, during the times of the Macy conferences, when priorities still centered on designing systems that could use their own output as input (such as guiding systems for ground to air missiles used in World War II). His work influenced 1st wave systems theory, and serves as inspiration for a number of proponents of 2nd wave systems; theorists such as Maturana and Valera (see their The Tree of Knowledge). 2nd wave systems work expanded on a number of ideas sometimes only hinted at in the first wave. Examples are the formulation of systems as open rather than close-ended, and emphasis on higher degrees of abstraction, such as the observation of observation. Figures like Niklas Luhman and Donna Haraway are just some of the names that have linked cybernetics and systems theory to sociology and feminist theory, respectively. Gregory Bateson’s work still holds great potential for anthropology, as issues of self-reflexivity, locality, and contextualization have become thematic priorities, and as the practice of doing anthropology has become a topic of discussion for anthropologists. Apart from Bateson’s occasional recourse to materialism in trying to locate the responsibility for personality traits in genes (Mind and Nature, 1979), the functionalist flavor of his writing, and lack of a serious ethical grounding for his epistemology (see his conclusion in “Form, Substance, and Difference,” Steps), Bateson’s work is good to think with across several disciplines.
Johnston, Paul. 1976-1980. Bateson, Gregory. In Dictionary of American Biography, Supplement Ten, edited by Kenneth T. Jackson, 27-29. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.
Klopfer, Peter H. 1979. Bateson, Gregory. In International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences: Biographical Supplement. Vol. XVIII, edited by David L. Sills, 42-44. New York: The Free Press.
Levy, Robert I and Roy Rappaport. 1982. Obituaries: Gregory Bateson (1904-1980).American Anthropologist. 84: 379-387.
Lonergan, David. 1991. Bateson, Gregory. In International Dictionary of Anthropologists, edited by Christopher Winters, 38-39. New York, Garland Publishing.
Marcus, George E. 1984. Gregory Bateson: The Legacy of a Scientist (Book review).American Anthropologist 86:427-428.
Segal, Daniel Alan. 1987. Bateson, Gregory. In Thinkers of the Twentieth Century, 2nd ed., edited by Roland Turner, 44-46. Chicago: St. James Press.
Brief Batesonian Glossary
Cybernetics. A holistic rather than linear system. A branch of mathematics addressing issues of control, recursiveness, and information.
Deutero-learning. Also referred to as ‘meta-learning,’ it refers to learning to learn, that is, learning about the context of learning as well as the content of learning. In learning to chase a stick, a dog not only learns to go after the stick and bring it back but also that such a thing as ‘chasing sticks’ exists and is likely to happen when particular conditions are fulfilled. Such contexts are increasingly expected with increased learning. This suggests that information is carried over from learning experiences in similar environments resulting in an increasingly faster learning rate. This concept is also referred to as double description (see below). Deutero-learning is contrasted with proto-learning, which involves an individual fact or action.
Double-bind theory. Refers to reinforcing both a specific behavior and the opposite of that behavior. Believed to be a factor causing schizophrenia in children. Became popularized through family therapy programs.
Ecology of mind is the ecology of ideas, or how ideas interact. One of the terms with which Bateson tried to sum up his life’s work.
Double description refers to learning not just the response to a given stimulus but also to becoming ready to receive the stimulus. Double description, or learning the context of life is not an internal process but an external relationship between two creatures. Also see deutero-learning (present in this glossary).
Negative feedback was widely explored at the Macy Conference in social and biological contexts. It offered alternatives to cause and effect explanations.
Schismogenesis. This idea appears first in Naven, but it is only after his work with psychiatry and cybernetics that it matures. It leads to progressive, or directional change that is mutually reinforcing. Symmetrical schismogenesis is directed towards increased rivalry. Complementary schismogenesis is directed to increased differentiation.
Stochastic process. A stream of random events coupled with a nonrandom selective process causing particular components to survive or last longer than others. Used to rebut structuralism.
Bateson’s Place Among Other Intellectuals
Influences on Bateson:
Influenced by Bateson:
Horst Mittelstaedt (feedback and calibration)
Carl Jung (creatura/pleroma)
Margaret Mead (Bali)
Maturana & Valera (cybernetics)
Norber Wiener ”
John von Neumann ”
Jurgen Ruesch (communication & psychiatry)
Conrad Waddington (genetic assimilation)
Books by Gregory Bateson:
1936 . Naven. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
with Jurgen Ruesch. 1951. Communication: The Social Matrix of Psychiatry. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, Inc.
1972. Steps to an Ecology of Mind. New York: Ballantine Books.
1974. Perceval’s Narrative: A Patient’s Account of His Psychosis, 1830-1832. New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc. Editor.
1979. Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity. Toronto: Bantam Books.
1987. Angels Fear: Towards an Epistemology of the Sacred. Toronto: Bantam Books.
1991. A Sacred Unity: Further Steps to an Ecology of Mind. New York: HarperCollins Publishers
with Margaret Mead. 1942. Balinese Character: A Photographic Analysis. New York: Academy of Sciences.
Books About and Related to Gregory Bateson:
Bateson, Mary Catherine.
1994. Peripheral Visions: Learning Along the Way. New York: HarperCollins.
1984. With a Daughter’s Eye. New York: Pocket Books.
Brockman, John, ed. 1977. About Bateson. New York: E.P. Dutton.
Lipset, David. 1982. Gregory Bateson: The Legacy of a Scientist. Boston: Beacon Press.
Rieber, Robert W., ed. 1989. The Individual, Communication, and Society: Essays in Memory of Gregory Bateson. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.
Wilder-Mott, C. and John H. Weakland, eds. 1981. Rigor and Imagination: Essays From the Legacy of Gregory Bateson. New York: Praeger.
Bateson Internet Links
Bateson, Gregory (1904-1980)
Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity (Book Review)
Soliloquy or Psychosis? A Cultural Look at Schizophrenia
Gregory Bateson Building
Gregory Bateson Profile
Bateson and Cybernetics
Gregory Bateson Profile
Systems Theory Curriculum