||on this website
|Gregory Bateson was one of the most influential systems
thinkers of the twentieth century. His work ranges from the analysis of
schizophrenia to the understanding of single-loop and double-loop (deutero-)
||Collaborators and co-authors included Jay
Haley and Paul Watzlawick, as well as his
daughter Mary Catherine Bateson.
Bateson is a profound influence on many management thinkers,
including Chris Argyris and Peter Senge.
|[Adaptation] [Double Bind]
[Caprice] [Change] [Communication]
[Learning] [Metacommunication] [Schismogenesis]
||Steps to an Ecology of Mind: Collected Essays in Anthropology,
Psychiatry, Evolution, and Epistemology by Gregory Bateson, Mary Catherine
Mind and Nature is good, but seems to be unavailable
at present. Other books to look out for are Angels Fear and
(Note: I've had difficulty accessing this useful website recently.)
‘If we are to compute the probability of survival for
a given organism which at this moment is prospering in a given environment,
we must include in our computation some factor which shall represent the
ability of the organism to survive under change and possibly adverse conditions.
But we do not know what changes or what adverse difficulties the organism
should be prepared for.’
Gregory Bateson, 'The New Conceptual Frames for Behavioural
Research' Proceedings of the Sixth Annual Psychiatric Institute (Princeton
NJ: New Jersey Neuro-Psychiatric Institute, September 17, 1958) reprinted
in G. Bateson, A Sacred Unity: Further Steps to an Ecology of Mind (edited
R.E. Donaldson, New York: Harper Collins, 1991) pp 93-110
The word ‘caprice’ is used by Bateson to describe the
tricks of Nature. It applies to the competitive environment of commercial
enterprises, as well as other classes of system discussed on this website.
An enterprise is ‘encouraged’ to rely on some characteristic of the competitive
environment, and then the rules of the game are changed. For example, as
the result of some unanticipated political activity by a competitor. This
is ‘not fair’.
Gregory Bateson, 'The New Conceptual Frames for
Behavioural Research' Proceedings of the Sixth Annual Psychiatric Institute
(Princeton NJ: New Jersey Neuro-Psychiatric Institute, September 17, 1958)
reprinted in G. Bateson, A Sacred Unity: Further Steps to an Ecology of
Mind (edited R.E. Donaldson, New York: Harper Collins, 1991) pp 93-110
Bateson writes: ‘By change I mean a ceasing to be true of some little
chip or big chunk of descriptive material. … I started to study change
on the assumption that there was something called "not change", and I arrived
in a world in which the only thing that is ever reported to me is change,
which either goes on independently of me or is created by my movement -
change in relationship to me.’
Gregory Bateson, 'Orders of Change' Loka II:
A Journal from Naropa Institute (ed Rick Fields, Boulder CO: Nalanda Foundation
/ Naropa Institute, 1976) reprinted in G. Bateson, A Sacred Unity: Further
Steps to an Ecology of Mind (edited R.E. Donaldson, New York: Harper Collins,
1991) pp 93-110
Thus change is a property of descriptions rather than of any underlying
reality. Other concepts, such as adaptability and flexibility are defined
in terms of change. Does this mean that flexibility is subjective? What
does this question mean?
For ten years (1952-1962), Bateson was director of a wide-ranging
research project on communication, paying particular attention to logical
paradoxes and Russell's Theory of Types. Bateson and his associates pioneered
the concept of metacommunication - something that means different (often
contradictory) things at different levels. Metacommunication is a characteristic
feature of complex systems.
|Modes of communication
||ventriloquism, humour, ...
||animal training, film, family systems, ...
|Modes of mental disorder
||schizophrenia, neurosis, ...
|Types of therapy
||hypnosis, psychotherapy, family therapy, ...
Among other things, this project established the double-bind theory
of schizophrenia. It also laid much of the groundwork for NeuroLinguistic
Darwinian evolution is often expressed as the survival of the fittest.
But as Bateson pointed out, it is more accurate to speak of the survival
of the fit. This phrase is deliberately ambiguous: it could mean either
the survival of fit individuals and species, or the survival of the fitness
relationship between the entity and its environment - in other words, it
is the fitness relationship itself that is preserved, while the species
itself may change almost beyond recognition.
Bateson defines information as "a difference that makes a difference".
Hold your hand perfectly still, palm upwards and resting comfortably
on a table. With your other hand, drop a small coin into the palm. You
will feel the impact, and if the coin is cold, you will feel the coldness
of the metal. Soon however, you will feel nothing. The nerve cells don't
bother repeating themselves. They will only report to the brain when something
changes. Information is difference.
A lizard hunting insects operates on the same principle. The lizard's
eye only reports movement to the lizard's brain. If the hunted insect settles
on a leaf, the lizard literally cannot see it. But the moment the insect
starts to move, whop, the lizard can see it again, and the tongue flickers
out and catches it.
But there are differences and differences. Information is difference
that makes a difference. You were probably aware, as you dropped the coin
into your palm, your eyes told you automatically, without your brain even
asking, what the value of the coin was; but you were probably not aware
what date it was minted. This is because (unless you are a numismatist)
the value of the coin makes a difference to you whereas its date doesn't.
What is it that makes a difference to a lizard, to a numismatist, to
you? Surely not the same things. What is information for the lizard is
not information for you, and what is information for you is not information
for the lizard.
This is why the perspective of information is important. Perspective
defines what counts as information at all, perspective defines to
whom the information makes a difference.
Bateson definition: "A process of differentiation in the norms of individual
behaviour resulting from cumulative interaction between individuals".
Therefore a progressive loss of homogeneity or cohesion, a fragmentation.
Flexibility is achieved not by keeping your options open,
but by making decisions. Keeping your options open is a form of neurosis
and leads to paralysis. Bateson calls this a narrowly homeostatic system,
rigidly indecisive, and identifes this as a characteristic of schizophrenic
families. Meanwhile, Lacan calls it repetition or Wiederholungszwang.
Daughter of Gregory Bateson and Margaret Mead. Collaborated with her
father on some of his books, and is a significant writer on her own account.
Like many women, and an increasing number of men, her
life was disrupted by forces outside her control - what her father calls
Her book Composing a Life puts a positive spin on this, and describes
how rich her life has been in consequence. Contains many wise words on
Mary Catherine Bateson, Composing a Life
(New York, Atlantic Monthly Press, 1989)
A few years ago, the
Earth Review published a wonderful essay by Mary Catherine Bateson
called The Revenge of the Good Fairy. In an environment where
progress is expected to succeed magically in resolving all the world's
troubles, it is of course bound to fall short of these expectations. Thus
technology is like the three wishes in the fairy stories that have unforeseen
and unwanted effects. This is an aspect of what we call Demanding
Update: Thanks to everyone who told me about the web
version of this essay.
Trust and Security "Can the commons exist
without common decency & common sense?"
Associate of Gregory Bateson and Milton
||Jay Haley, Uncommon Therapy: The psychiatric techniques of Milton
H Erikson MD (2nd ed, New York: W.W.Norton, 1986)
Associate of Gregory Bateson, and an popular writer on change.
|Paul Watzlawick, The Language of Change (New York, Basic Books, 1978)
|Paul Watzlawick, Ultra-Solutions: How to Fail most successfully (New
York, W.W. Norton, 1988)