Spring 2009 - Volume 12 Number 2
Understanding Gregory Bateson: Mind, Beauty, and the Sacred Earth
Albany: State University of New York Press, 2008
My favourite biography of Gregory Bateson was written by David Lipset in 1980. Its title was Gregory Bateson and its subtitle was Legacy of a Scientist. This reveals my bias. I knew Bateson some in the late 1960s and early 1970s. My most memorable formal encounter with him came in the summer of 1970, when I presented a workshop paper at a conference on “modernization in Asia and the Pacific in the East-West Center at the University of Hawai’i. Bateson was on the panel. I reported the story in these pages a scant seventeen years ago and twenty-three years after the event. Time flies.
Gregory was a very tall, ambling man with more than a trace of a British accent (he was born and raised in England where his father William was the first person in the world to acquire the title, Professor of Genetics, at Cambridge University). Gregory was born in 1904 and died in 1980. He haunts me still.
It is hard to say what his specialty was; indeed, he would be offended if he was thought to have had one. He was something of a dabblereclectic, but certainly no dilettante. Some might dutifully call him a polymath; others might pay him the backhanded compliment of saying he was a “renaissance man.” His expertise flowed easily from anthropology to zoology. His first wife was Margaret Mead, and his first published article (1925) was “On Certain Aberrations of the Red-legged Partridges Alectoris Rufa and Saxatilis.”
On the way from birth to death and in no particular order, he produced classics in anthropological photography, was present at the creation of cybernetics, famously taught science to artists and the aesthetics to medical doctors, studied dolphins, was an OSS (precursor to the CIA) operative, produced gracefully devastating criticisms of “occidental education,” fathered three children, investigated alcoholism and non-verbal communication, thought deeply about Plato, Jung and Lamarck, and once told me that there was really no difference between religion, jokes and schizophrenia. His unique theory of schizophrenia, incidentally, has now largely been discredited, but his comment on religion and jokes based on the application of Russell’s Rule of Logical Types still makes sense. His insight into these two remaining and peculiarly human phenomena is quite simply this: they are both absurd.
Lipset’s biography was my favourite because it approached Bateson’s complexity from the viewpoint of science and scientific understanding. Bateson was not a positivist, but he demanded evidence; he was not a Platonist, but he was dedicated to the definition and the exploration of the mind. Indeed, his most enduring contributions to our culture will probably lie in the fields of epistemology and aesthetics as the most profound subject matter and the most revealing theoretical tool currently at our disposal. Where Lipset’s contribution was especially useful was in describing and explaining how Bateson’s search for a science of mind worked its way through what we would variously call “systems analysis” or “holistic thinking.” He understood that Cartesian and other conceptual boundaries were massive obstacles to understanding, that artificial dyads were unnecessary and quite false dichotomies and that the proper answer to the question “Either/Or” was “Yes!”
The problem was that Lipset stopped a little short of a full essay into terms that sounded then and sound today ever-so-slightly unscientific. I could appreciate words such as “sacred” which appeared in the Gregory’s final book, an anthology of his writings edited by R. E. Donaldson and published eleven years after his death. In fact, although I was most impressed with Gregory’s collection, Steps to an Ecology of Mind (1972), it was that book, A Sacred Unity: Further Steps to an Ecology of Mind (1991) which pressed on me the desire for someone to explicate Gregory’s wholesale plunge into dimensions with which I was radically unfamiliar.
Noel G. Charlton’s recent account of the life of Gregory Bateson ought to have been the book that might help me come to a more complete understanding of the man and his life’s work. It almost succeeds.
Charlton’s Gregory Bateson moves in a different direction from the path tread by Lipset. He sees Bateson less as a scientist than as a “mystic”; so far, so good, for it was that side of him that I had missed. Early on, he leads us to the conclusion that, for Bateson, “any subdivision of the living processes of the inhabitants of the Earth is arbitrary.” He pays attention to a splendid paper that David Cooper collected in his Dialectics of Liberation (1969) wherein Bateson attacked one of the core elements of Western thought, the concept of conscious human purpose, and pointed out persuasively that it was our individual and collective illusion that we can exercise power over human and non-human nature that constantly gets us (and the Earth) into trouble.
“They say,” I recall him saying, “that power corrupts, but I think that is nonsense. It the idea that you can ever have power that corrupts. It’s the arrogance of thinking that it was a good idea for God to give our species or any species ‘dominion’ over the Earth that has been our true fall from grace.”
One problem that I found in Charlton’s book, but which I readily acknowledge others might find a strength, is his tendency to spend a great deal of time and space telling us what Gregory told us. Many, many pages are spent offering summaries of some of Bateson’s better works. I found this disconcerting since I think I have read pretty much everything he published either in the original or in the anthologized form. That is to be expected, for at the time I encountered him, he was in danger of being something of a guru to young scholars and world-saving wannabes. He was almost a cult figure; but, like most apparently profoundly influential intellectuals, his days of dominance seem to have been short-lived. I keep seeing his name pop up in the indexes and bibliographies of books by faddish and temporarily fashionable writers, but I am not sure that many young people have heard of him and I am almost certain that few read him as assiduously as people who were young thirty to fifty years ago. So, it may not be a bad thing for Charlton to bring his readers up-to-speed, as it were. And, I am happy to say that his synopses are generally as accurate as anyone could want, and they have the further virtue of engaging the interest of people to such a degree that they might well be encouraged to go to the source, where their thirsts will be much more fully slaked.
As for the explanatory thread that I was hoping to find, it is there in parts. I do, however, think that Lipset’s study was more useful in tracing Bateson from his scientific roots to the flowering of his special genius when seeking to explore the pattern of organization that connects all living things together. Bateson, of course, did not concern himself with the merely material universe, the domain of stars and rocks and other inanimate objects or what Jung called “pleroma,” but concentrated on the “creatura,” the organic inhabitants on the cosmos. Charlton does tell us something of what Bateson thought about what is sometimes preciously called “Gaia,” but it is not so convincing. This is to be expected, of course, because musing about the immaterial is inevitably fuzzier than focusing on the material aspects of existence and experience. Since this is the area of Bateson’s work that has captured Charlton’s attention, and since it was plainly what Bateson saw as the culmination of over half a century of concentrated study over a wide range of subjects or, rather over “the pattern that connects” them, then he has made a good try, and his book may very well lead an unsuspecting young mind to the further study of mind in nature.
To get the full benefit of Gregory Bateson’s indefatigable and experimental approach to all living things and the relationships among them, and acquire the same misgivings and conundrums as I retain, I fear that it may be necessary to examine both of Bateson’s books mentioned above, as well as his equally or even more engrossing volume (this time not an anthology of articles), entitled Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity (1979). The first, Steps to an Ecology of Mind, was enough to prompt Governor Jerry Brown to appoint Gregory to the Board of Regents of the University of California. Now that it’s thirty years later and Mr. Brown seems poised to become Governor of California for a whole new generation, it might be time for Gregory to resurface. Lipset and Charlton provide an interesting tension in interpretation, but nothing beats encountering Gregory on his own, and eavesdropping on a special mind and a special maneven if you do not agree with (and sometimes do not quite understand the first time) exactly what he is getting at. The journey will be worth the efforteven if it never quite ends.
Howard A. Doughty teaches in the Faculty of Applied Arts and Health Sciences at Seneca College in King City, Ontario. He can be reached at email@example.com
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