15 June 2008
Even for an anthropology student, at least at the undergraduate level, I'm pretty familiar with most anthropological theory and the major players in the field. I'm not bragging about how smart or dedicated I am, just pointing out how pathetic my life is. There is no-one, though, who impresses me more than Gregory Bateson. His ideas and the way he viewed the world were truly unique, and, as a result of his idiosyncratic vision he was able to lay the foundation for a vast theoretical framework which has gone largely unappreciated so far. Here I would like to introduce you all to some of his ideas in a very basic way and direct you to further readings to find out more. I really believe that, if we were to use some of the analytical tools that he developed, and apply them to our own society, then we would have a better understanding of how to proceed toward a sustainable future.
I first encountered Bateson when I was a teenager. One of my high school teachers recommended his books to me on a regular basis, particularly Steps to an Ecology of Mind and Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity. I picked up copies of both at one time and tried to read them, but back then it just seemed like overly scientific chatter - I had no idea what he was saying, and the little I did understand seemed uninteresting to me. Things have changed since that time, though. Just as a side thought, it seems to me that I am a completely different person than I was just a short while ago - so much so that I really think that I've been replaced by somebody else, and that my memories were engineered to give me the illusion of continuity. That might make a good sci-fi story at some point, but for now, on with Bateson. Recently, when I picked up Bateson again (because I had been coming across references to him fairly frequently) I found him far more readable and much more interesting than I had before. It's true that he does use a lot of scientific or simply obscure terminology, but if you're willing to do some work push through all of that then there are some significant rewards. Here are just a few of his ideas, as I interpret them, which are revolutionary to say the least.
Bateson didn't invent the idea of logical types - it's actually been around in western philosophy for a long time. The most prominent explication of the concept was written in the early twentieth century by Bertrand Russell and Albert North Whitehead - I forget the name of the book at the moment. Bateson borrowed the concept from them and began to apply it to all kinds of different themes.
Fundamentally speaking, the theory of logical types explains the relationship between classes and their components. For example, "apples" is a class of objects with certain general characteristics, "granny smith apples" is a narrower class of objects that falls into the category of apples, but doesn't include all kinds of apples. These classes can be further narrowed until you get to a particular apple on a particular day at a particular time and place (and you could probably go even further if you liked). Thus, we can create a hierarchy of orders of abstraction. On the first order is the particular apple with all of its particular characteristics, on the next order are "granny smiths" with various characteristics that define those (green, bitter, hard, etc.) and on the highest order of abstraction are "apples" with a different set of characteristics (roundish fruit, thin skinned, grows on trees, etc.). Each lower class includes the characteristics of the one above it, but adds a few more to narrow the scope a little more.
There a lot of applications of this concept, and Bateson used it in almost everything he did, but I'll only explain one here, for the sake of brevity - the concept of deutero-learning. Deutero-learning is essentially learning to learn or learning to deal with classes of circumstances rather than particular circumstances. For example, in one particular case we may be asked to learn the fact "the Declaration of Independence was signed on July 4th 1776," so we write it down, study it, look up more information about it, etc. and get it memorized. This set of actions can be applied to the memorization of any kind of fact not just this one, so making this a habit would be deutero-learning. This type of learning is, often by necessity, unconscious. We aren't aware of how we do it, or what exactly it is that we do, but it's there anyway. Deutero-learning is learning on a higher order of abstraction from first order learning. It is more generalizable, and so more likely to become habitual. There are even higher orders of learning, natural selection, for example, but the higher the order of learning, the more abstract it becomes and the more rigid it becomes. So it's best to keep the lower orders more flexible and the higher orders more generalized. Bateson went on to use this idea and a more complicated extension of logical typing in communication to explain the origins of schizophrenia in what became his most well known theory - the double-bind theory of schizophrenia.
When most people think of cybernetics they think of robots and computers, at least I do. However, cybernetics mainly deals with recursive or feedback systems. The best example of a cybernetic system is the thermostat. As the room cools down a switch is triggered (by the cold) which turns on a heater. As the heater warms the room the switch is then turned off (by the heat) causing the heater to shut off, and allowing the room to cool down again. The process is then repeated endlessly, keeping the room within a certain range of temperature. Cybernetic systems remain in equilibrium as long as they are not self-reinforcing. If the thermostat, instead of turning off the heater as it got hotter, continually turned it higher then you would get a system where the heater would heat up the room causing the thermostat to turn the heater up causing the room to get even hotter and the thermostat to turn the heater up even more endlessly until something breaks.
This concept of feedback helps to explain a variety of things including biological systems, ecosystems, social interactions and behavior. One way that Bateson used it was to explain how different groups interact with each other and how those relations can escalate beyond control, what he called schismogenesis. He defined two types of schismogenic relationships - complementary and symmetrical. A complementary relationship is where the actions of one person or group bring about a different action in response from a second person or group. For example if the first person exhibits pride then the other may exhibit adoration, this then causes the first person to feel more pride and the second to display more adoration until the system becomes unstable and "something breaks" - this break is the schismogenesis where one party breaks off to form their own independent group. The symmetrical relationship can also lead to schismogenesis. In this case the first person's behavior is responded to by the second person with the same type of behavior. Boasting is a good example here. Person one makes a boast causing person two to make his own boast, forcing person one to make an even grander boast which person two must then top and continuing until the two parties break off. Another good example of this is the nuclear arms race. Schismogenic relationships can relationships can attain a certain level of equilibrium in a number of different ways. One is to inject a small amount of the opposite form of relationship - so two groups engaged in a complementary relationship would inject a small amount of symmetrical interaction, which helps to neutralize the runaway effects of the complementary feedback (and vice versa). An example of this is when two groups are engaged in a dominance-submission relationship (complementary) such as that of an empire to any of its colonies then they may engage in some form of competitive game (a soccer tournament, for example) and this competition (a symmetrical interaction) will take the edge off the dominance submission for a while - kind of a cathartic or orgasmic experience to relieve the tension.
This kind of analysis could be used for relationships between individuals as well as between large groups such as nations. Gaining a better understanding of how these relationships work and how to maintain equilibrium within them could lead to more enlightened foreign policy and better psychological treatments, among other things.
Teleological Versus Stochastic Processes
Again, these concepts are not new to Bateson, they were around for a long time, but Bateson explained them in a more complete way and applied them to areas where they had never been applied before. The best way to explain the two is to look at different theories of evolution. Most people aren't aware of it, but there were actually several different theories of evolution put forward around the same time as Darwin. Darwin's theory of evolution through natural selection, however, proved to be the best explanation for the evidence. One competing view of evolution was put forward by a guy named Lamarck, and so is often referred to as Lamarckian evolution. Lamarckian evolution is teleological because it is purpose and end driven. The most often cited example is that of the Giraffe's neck. Why does the giraffe have such a long neck? Lamarck would say that long ago the giraffe had an ordinary neck, but then this particular giraffe wanted to reach some particularly tasty leaves at the top of a tree. In order to do this it had to stretch its neck, making it slightly longer in the process. This trait was then passed down to the next generation which again had to stretch its neck a little further which was passed to the next generation, continuing until the present day where the giraffe has a very long neck and can reach the leaves on the very tops of the trees. So essentially, the giraffe saw an end, the leaves on the trees and a long neck to reach them, and purposefully adapted itself to those circumstances gradually over its own life as well as over several generations until it achieved that end. There are many flaws with this theory, including the problem of inheritance of acquired characteristics, but the important thing here is that it's an example of a teleological model.
Darwin's theory of evolution through natural selection, however, is stochastic. A stochastic process is one characterized by underlying (lower order) randomness which is filtered through a (higher order) set of simple rules to create a seemingly ordered system. For Darwin, the randomness was provided by variation within a species - no two chimpanzees are exactly alike. The set of rules was natural selection - competition for scarce resources, variable reproductive success and the heritablity of traits. These two combined explain most of the diversity of life on the planet as well as the complex but ordered interaction of organisms in ecosystems.
There are several other examples of stochastic and teleological processes - one that occurs to me is capitalism, which is stochastic versus Marxism which is teleological. It's important to recognize that social and cultural change is stochastic rather than teleological. Revolutionaries would have us believe that it is the latter, that they can set a desired end and direct the culture to that end. What ends up happening, though, is a lot of violence, bloodshed or misdirection. The revolutionary force gets caught up in fighting ideas and things that it views as being counter-revolutionary, forcing people to accept a particular doctrine with which they may or may not agree, or its grand design is revealed as being inconsistent with on-the-ground realities. For this reason, those of us who are seeking a transformation in culture must seek it through stochastic processes by recognizing that we can't direct or predict the ends, we can only preserve and encourage diversity within the system (the problem with capitalism is that it tends to discourage lower order diversity, this diminishing the "gene pool" upon which it relies).
All of these different concepts intertwine within Bateson's work to form a larger picture of the world. As I mentioned before, understanding and using these tools that he's laid out for us will give us a much better understanding of the world in which we live. Unfortunately, little has been done in the way of applying or testing his theories - the only recognition he got was from the counter-culture movement of the sixties and seventies which saw him as a kind of scientific guru (a role he wasn't very fond of, I suspect). I hope I've sparked some interest in those of you who read this. I know it was a long post, and probably not very exciting, but maybe some part of it caught your attention and you'll want to delve deeper. Well, here is a list of some books that explain this stuff further:
Steps to an Ecology of Mind
by Gregory Bateson
Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity
by Gregory Bateson
Angels Fear: Toward and Epistemology of the Sacred
by Gregory Bateson
by Gregory Bateson
Ecology, Meaning and Religion
by Roy Rappaport (he applies some of Batesons ideas to ecological anthropology)
A Recursive Vision: Ecological Understanding and Gregory Bateson
by Peter Harries-Jones
Here is an essay by the Norwegian anthropologist Thomas Hylland Eriksen which uses Bateson's concept of flexibility (which is based on all three of the above ideas) to analyze the "new work."
Here is a site dedicated to Gregory Bateson with some interviews, essays and such (by the way, he was married to Margaret Mead and their daughter Mary Catherine Bateson continues to develop some of his ideas).
Posted by Jeremy Trombley at 3:10 PM