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College Quarterly
Fall 1993 - Volume 1 Number 1
A Sacred Unity
Gregory Bateson
Toronto: Harper Collins, 1991
Reviewed by Howard A. Doughty
There’s a story which I have used before… A man wanted to know about mind, not in nature, but in his computer. He asked: “Will you ever think like a human being?” The machine then analyzed its own conlputational habits. Finally, it printed its answer on a piece of paper, as such machines do. The man ran to get the answer and found, neatly typed, the words: That Reminds me of a Story. - Gregory Bateson, 1979

All who knew him have anecdotes. One of mine relates to a workshop paper I was presenting to a conference on economic development in Asia and the Pacific in the summer of 1970. Bateson had asked a question about the relationship between ideology and material abundance. Painfully trying to work out an answer — all the while responding with words to his alternating nods and frowns — I said something to the effect that there were many ecologies, including the biological, material and ideological, and that we must develop an approach to the ecology of ideas that comprehends them all. Two years later, Gregory published Steps to an Ecology of Mind. I wasted no thought on the idea I’d given him the title. It was clear that he had led my talk along lines already familiar to him. As a consummate teacher, he had patiently refrained from saying aloud what I had so struggled to articulate.

Stewart Brand said: “Six-foot five, dishevelled, Bateson’s presence is like Rodin’s sculpture of Balzac, but instead of fierce, completely benign. He looks at you critically, optimistically, as if you’re going to say something good any minute now.”

Bateson said and wrote much that was very good. Zoologist and anthropologist by degrees, he was one of our century’s most prolific thinkers in areas as diverse as aesthetics, biology, cybernetics, linguistics, and psychology. His interests included porpoises, New Guinea natives, schizophrenics, beetles, religion. His father was a pioneering geneticist. One of his wives was Margaret Mead. His “disciples” are many. Reading this last of his books is not for the faint of heart or mind. A Sacred Unity is a posthumous collection of work published between 1944 and 1980. It is especially unamenable to those who might see in Bateson a fashionable new guru. The nineteenth printing of Steps was promoted by Ballantine in 1990 as “a valuable document of inner space,” at which Gregory would have chortled.

Bateson was, after all, a scientist. His writings demand close attention, the acquisition of an occasionally technical vocabulary, and an unremitting respect for formal logic. That said, his range was vast. One reporter said that "his discourse is the opposite of a tidy, closed system and persistently veers down primrose paths, off into galaxies of human ignorance, returning to mirror itself, and out of the reach of language. Provocative, demanding, useful as hell, and about as convenient."

Teachers of all subjects could profit from him. His private collection of William Blake’s engravings introduced an aspirant empiricist (me) to Blake’s aesthetics. He introduced art students to biology, medical students to the concept of sacrament, and all to the key question of scientific and aesthetic epistemology: what is the connective pattern? As he put it in Mind and Nature-. “What pattern connects the crab to the lobster and the orchid to the primrose and all four of them to me and me to you? And all the six of us to the amoeba in one direction, and the backward schizophrenic in another?”

If the question interests you, Bateson’s work will surely help you to sort out an answer. You may even think (and this will be Bateson’s greatest triumph) that you thought it up all by yourself.


Howard A. Doughty teaches in the School of Liberal Studies at Seneca College and is Editor of The College Quarterly.

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