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“From Anthropology to Epistemology”: Extensions to an Autobiography of Gregory Bateson

Peter Harries‑Jones

York University (Ontario)

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Harries–Jones, Peter, 2021. “‘From Anthropology to Epistemology’: Extensions to an Autobiography of Gregory Bateson”, in Bérose - Encyclopédie internationale des histoires de l'anthropologie, Paris.

URL Bérose : article2457.html

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There were several occasions in Gregory Bateson’s writing in which he presented his own biography along with his accomplishments. Some of these are longer than others. One of the longer ones revealed his early interest in pattern and mysticism and appeared in Steps to an Ecology of Mind (Bateson, [1972] 2000 : 73-87). Another, written in 1976, is entitled ‘From Anthropology to Epistemology’ (Bateson, 1991 : 89-90) and was given the same year to the American Association for the Advancement of Science at the symposium ‘Fifty Years of Anthropology’, honouring Margaret Mead. This shortlist of accomplishments is the blueprint for the following. It reveals how Bateson came to be a transdisciplinary writer who embraced several fields at once :

a) Supporting qualitative rather than quantitative evidence about ‘states’ and ‘purpose’ ;

b) Moving towards steps more abstract than those on which materialism walks ;

c) Removing dualism, Darwin, and other support for the widespread notion of ‘no mind’ in nature ;

d) With the rise of ecology, redefining the fundamental unit of interaction in life as ‘organism plus environment’ ;

Finally, e) he argues that information rules, rather than dependence on power and force, produces order and absorbs change.

All of this emerges in an ‘epistemology’ of patterns and ideas, and epistemology less oriented towards individual typing and particularities of culture, and which can become more holistic (i.e. culture plus evolution plus environment), through tracing transforms of communication in ‘the patterns which connect’. It is a considerable legacy for anthropology and here is a legacy compiled through material garnered from unpublished articles, notebook entries, and letters, as well as from his published books and articles.

Bateson’s Legacy

1. He argues that ‘Mind’ is a universal attribute in all animate (creatural) systems. Only recently did modern science accept this, specifically in 2012 with publication of the Cambridge (UK) Declaration on Consciousness in nature (Low, 2012). Bateson rejects dualism of mind/body, culture/nature and sciences/ humanities and undertakes a systematic investigation of how ‘mind’ uses information in order to communicate.

2. He created a comprehensive definition in 1969/1970 of information as ‘difference that makes a difference’ in animate processes of perception. This definition is now accepted in both qualitative and technical discussion of information. His studies of communicative interactions between those in communication fosters an Anthropology of Communication (Winkin, 2001) based largely on Bateson’s approach to the ‘framing’ of human communicative and also, animal interactions.

3. Through cybernetics he initiates discussion of circularity as a dominant form in both society and nature, with all processes of organization co-joined through mutual causal feedback. Biology has yet to accept circularity as the basic form/pattern of life, although today it does undertake investigation of non-linear patterning, as Bateson had proposed.

4. He proposes that wellness of ecosystems is congruent with wellness of human life and is of equal or more importance than any economic formulation. Ecosystem wellness has to be approached in qualitative terms, with ‘organism plus environment’ being the fundamental interactive coupling of life. Ecology in the widest sense turns out to be the study of interaction and survival of ideas : thus the physical degrading of environment is related to degraded interactions in an ‘ecology of mind.’

5. He is a noted figure in the history of family therapy, and introduced the concept of ‘double bind’ in human pathology of communication.

6. He devised and produced one of the very first ethnographic films, Dance and Trance in Bali (1942).

7. He introduced the idea that a) culture and b) ecology are integrative with each other, but such holism is only valid when approached through mutual-causal and systemic circles of relations. He proposes an active, rather than a passive notion of perception in all animates, including animate expectancy of mind and of perceptive recall (recursive loops) in animal life, and ecology.

8. He is one of four intellectual forebears of the new science of biosemiotics, a field of semiosis that studies pre-linguistic meaning-making, and semiotic interpretation of signs and codes in the biological realm. Jesper Hoffmeyer, a founder of biosemiotics, acknowledges Bateson as precursor to several of his own intellectual achievements, especially the ‘dual coding’, digital plus analogue, of biosemiosis on which the new science rests (Hoffmeyer, 2008 and 2008).

Accounts of Bateson’s Legacy

The Social Science Encyclopedia in 1965 gave an account of Bateson’s work (Kuper and Kuper 1965 : 64). The entry begins :

BATESON, GREGORY : An elusive, Cambridge-trained anthropologist who made his career largely in the United States. Bateson was an interdisciplinary innovator and generalist, with strong interests in philosophy and ecology.

Similar biographical extracts about the work of Gregory Bateson can be found in several other encyclopaedias of anthropology. Here is another one, which covers the careers of the former marriage partners, Gregory Bateson and Margaret Mead as separate individuals with little about their writing on the same topics ‘over the top’ of one another :

Bateson, Gregory (1904-80) was by common consent a maverick and much underrated by his own generation... [he undertook research] with his then wife Margaret Mead in Bali, producing a remarkable photographic ethnography Balinese Character (1942) with her. The latter part of his career was spent largely outside anthropology, and towards the end of his life he made important contributions to educational theory and the politics of environment.

Mead, Margaret (1901-1978). Probably the most famous anthropologist of the twentieth century....

This particular appraisal appears in Alan Barnard and Jonathan Spencer’s Encyclopedia of social and cultural anthropology (1996), which ignores the fact that Bateson and his first wife, Margaret Mead, made side-by-side contributions to each other’s work, beginning with joint ethnography, and joint social psychology. He first encountered the subject matter of ‘pattern’ in anthropology through Mead’s long-term relationship with Ruth Benedict, the author of a noted study entitled Patterns of Culture (Benedict, 1934). The notion of ‘pattern’ became central to his thinking. Another topic central to Bateson’s thinking is that of ‘learning.’ Bateson believed this topic was central to animate existence. He acknowledged in his own book Steps to an Ecology of Mind (Bateson, 2000 : 159-193) the extent of Mead’s influence on him in respect of this issue, vis-à-vis activity of Bali mothers and their children. Then there is the topic of ‘schizophrenia’, which was the focus of Bateson’s research at the Veterans Administration hospital in Palo Alto (1954-59). His investigation of the topic of schizophrenia first arose out of a grant that Mead had secured to support their joint fieldwork in Bali. Mead got the grant by agreeing to undertake, as part of their study, the varied practices of going into trance in Bali.

Dance and trance in Bali, Bateson’s ethnographic film (Bateson, 1942), emerges as one of the first of its kind in anthropology and was a joint production with Mead. It showed little relation to a pathological disorder of communication through inability to talk, as in schizophrenia. Later, both published a joint essay on this subject in CoEvolution Quarterly (Bateson and Mead, 1976). Then there is the subject of cybernetics. Bateson is well known for his continuing interest in feed-forward (run-away activity) observed in his New Guinea ethnography. In the 1940s, he joined a group discussion of cybernetics, sponsored by the Josiah Macy conferences. Cybernetics derives from propositions about the presence of feedback and feed-forward in both material and animate existence. When Bateson wrote about ‘schismogenesis’ among the Iatmul of New Guinea, he knew nothing about the formal properties of ‘feedback’. Later Bateson realized that he had been a witness to ‘runaway’ or feed-forward events. The performance of a ritual, naven, in response to potential ‘runaway’ within the village overcame threats of village dissolution. It was study of how and why the ritual inverted the progress of runaway that took him to cybernetics, and subsequently towards family therapy.

Mead also attended the early conferences of cybernetics and was a co-editor of one volume of these discussions. Moreover, the American Society for Cybernetics in 1967 gave Mead the honour of a keynote address and she chose to discuss what she called ‘the cybernetics of cybernetics’ or as it later became called ‘second-order cybernetics’ (published in von Foerster, 1968). The idea originated from Bateson. The speech marked a complete turn in the focus of cybernetics, a change from the evidential control of the external observer in ‘first-order cybernetics’ to the recursive-reflexive approach of second-order cybernetics, in which the therapist became part of the therapy, instead of conductor of it. Finally, just before Bateson turned his writing mainly to the study of ecology, it was Margaret Mead, not Bateson, who was nominated as the keynote speaker at the very first Earth Day, in 1970. Toward the end of her life, Mead had become active in ecological politics of the Sahel.

Bateson sought to avoid politics. Yet when they were first married, they both were jointly active in opposing the right wing, isolationist politics of the ‘America First’ movement of Charles Lindbergh and others who opposed the United States joining the war against Germany. After the war, Mead’s money from book royalties enabled the founding of an Institute for Intercultural Studies. The institute, formed in 1944, combined Mead’s royalties with funds from Ruth Benedict’s projects, specifically royalties from Benedict’s Research in Contemporary Cultures at Columbia University. Among other projects, Bateson and Mead used the institute to engage in the post-war discussion about the need to generate support for global control of use of nuclear warheads, in order to ensure that there were constraints on nuclear development developed within the United Nations, by a global political entity outside the control of the United States military (Bateson 1946a, 1946b). Margaret Mead took sole control of the institute until her own death in 1978. The directorship then fell to the daughter of Bateson and Mead, Mary Catherine Bateson. The Institute for Intercultural Studies closed in 2009.

Though the couple ‘wrote over the top of each other’ on an on-going basis for many years, there were also thematic disagreements. Bateson had no love for Sigmund Freud, yet the field of anthropology in which Mead’s work mostly appeared was that of ‘Culture and Personality’, a field that was then riddled with Freudian and other psychiatric approaches to culture. Glimmers of the latter appear in the rushed pre-war publication of their Bali fieldwork Balinese Character : A Photographic Analysis (Bateson and Margaret Mead, 1942).

By far their biggest disagreements were over applied anthropology, which Margaret Mead was insistent upon sponsoring. In her view, an applied anthropology would ensure a future for students of anthropology as they move from academic training for jobs in education, administration and development projects. Mead was a resolute founder of that approach while Bateson said there is no such thing as an applied anthropology. In his view the whole idea would push the subject of anthropology into embracing the norms and procedures of natural science, and its quantitative methodology. The aim of anthropological research should be to improve use of research conducted on a qualitative base, he asserted, thus providing evidence, through a broader analysis, which would challenge results obtained from quantitative studies in natural science.

Studying William Blake

Bateson had his primary, secondary and university education in England. He began at Warden House in Kent, which thirty-five years later happens to be a sister-school to my own primary school. The two schools played cricket and soccer and field hockey against one another. Nora Bateson, Bateson’s daughter, tells me that her father talked about how deeply unhappy he was at that school even to the point of despair and dreaming about suicide. I can understand his despair and unhappiness. At my own school, boyhood friendship was discouraged and the main requirement was to obey the rules, Christian rules. And caning occurred. I remember looking forward to visiting and playing against Warden House because that school seemed to offer, for at least one day, a more a relaxed surrounding than my own. Yet I never faced the conditions which were the cause for Bateson’s despair. His father, William Bateson, an important and well-known biologist of his day, was an atheist and was determined that his sons, all three of them, would be atheists too. Warden House, like my own school was one of strict Anglicanism. His mother made special arrangements with the headmaster of Warden House so that Gregory would conform to the daily ritual of saying the Lord’s Prayer and not face the prospect of being caned for refusing to comply (Lipset, 1980 : 61). But this did not take into account the social pressures he must have faced among his schoolmates and perhaps his teachers. I cringe at the thought of the life of any young boy who declared to be atheist at my own school as I know it would have led to ostracism, backed upon incredible loneliness. Bateson managed to remain an atheist, despite the painfulness of his early schooling.

At Charterhouse, his secondary school, or perhaps a little later, young Bateson engaged in serious study of one of the finest of the English poets and artists, William Blake (1757-1827). Indeed his father had purchased a Blake painting which hung in the family home in Cambridge and which later became part of Gregory Bateson’s heritage. The Blakean vision of how ‘creative imagination proposes outlines of the world’ drew Bateson toward Blake’s ideas along with Blake’s objections to the rationality of his day. Blakean insights about perception, of the virtues of craft and its learning as fundamental to life, and the underlying significance of pattern and patterning remained with Bateson, and Blake’s poetry and painting were formative in Bateson’s own approach. ‘The pattern is the thing’, Gregory Bateson would later declare, meaning that ‘the thing’, if a living ‘thing’, was not a material object but conjoined patterns of information in body and mind.

Blakean approaches framed Gregory Bateson’s scepticism about natural science. That is to say he believed the methods of physics had clearly overwhelmed the natural sciences in the late nineteenth century, and this dominance had spread into both biology and the emerging social sciences in the twentieth century. His own father’s objection to dualism between the sciences and the arts encouraged his son to ignore supposed barriers between art and science. Since his father was a well-known biologist, the very first to be given a professorship in genetics (a term which he coined in 1905) his position was unusual. This all led to the youngest Bateson, as an atheist, rejecting religion yet avidly supporting a non-religious crossover of art and science.

Nevertheless, as an author, Gregory Bateson quoted religious figures, used terms like ‘the sacred’, ‘grace’ and ‘the gods of ecology’, and made references to Biblical text. This led some commentators to propose that he had underlying religious propensities in his writing. More often than not they are all part of his long-standing Blakean approach, such as the title of his posthumous volume – co-written and edited by his daughter, Mary Catherine Bateson – entitled Where Angels Fear To Tread : Towards an Epistemology of the Sacred (Bateson and Bateson, 1987). Although Alexander Pope’s original lines about ‘fools rushing in’ was about impertinent critics, namely ‘Bookful Blockheads, ignorantly read’, Bateson’s Blakean title refers to more to perception and misperception of holiness ‘where angels fear to tread’.

Iatmul Ethnography (1927-1930)

‘From Anthropology to Epistemology’ appears in Rodney Donaldson’s book of Bateson’s later essays, and was published after Bateson’s death (Bateson, 1991, 89-90). The brief essay begins with recording how he switched from his undergraduate studies in biology at Cambridge University, and then went on to produce an ethnography of the Iatmul of New Guinea. The Iatmul were, in fact, the third ethnographic group in the New Guinea area in which he had undertaken field research. The two others had been the Baining and the Sulka, but his writing on these remained as field reports.

The appearance of ‘schisms’ in village community was a common theme in the anthropology of the 1930s but was usually expressed in terms of the relationship between long-lived lineages in a particular culture, and, as one other well-known anthropologist expressed it, revealed a historical trend of ‘fission and fusion’. Bateson termed the schismatic process among the Iatmul, schismogenesis. If a person’s adverse action towards another person‘s activity is left to hang, and not countered in an affective sense, it could soon lead to more and more adverse, exaggerated, communicative interactions between the respondents. What Bateson noted was how quickly activity can lead to a rapid disintegration of village community, especially when there is no recognized process through which an impending schism can be rectified.

In the Iatmul case, there was appropriate ritual action which could dampen down impending rifts by means of the ritual of naven, thus expressing countervailing relations and restoring balance between the groups concerned. The ritual evoked behaviours originating from the days not long before, when the Iatmul had been headhunters. Underlying potential disruption was male competition to become the ‘mother’ of novices at male initiation ceremonies. Originally these would occur just before actual headhunting activities took place.

Bateson identified two forms of potential breakdown among the Iatmul that could lead to schismogenesis. The first of these arose in competitive exchanges in which an initiator of the exchange would attempt to ‘up the ante’ in relations with other members of totemic clans within the village, in a game of non-ending one-upmanship. He called this symmetrical schismogenesis. The second occurred between forms of cultural dominance and cultural submission within the society, and he termed this type of interaction ‘complementary differentiation’ in schismogenesis. Here, the dominant party to the interaction assumes a somewhat bullying attitude, which leads the other to accept the bullying in such a manner that the dominant one then behaves in an increasingly robust manner, so increasing subservient behaviour on the part of the other. Differentiation of this sort may become progressive and Bateson found that both types of progressive differentiation could lead to ‘a progressive unilateral distortion’ of relations among the members of both groups, which eventually result in perpetual mutual hostility between them, a hostility which might then precipitate a collapse of relationship and a systemic breakdown (Bateson, 2000 : 68-72).

The submissive response was only made in specific circumstances. Naven was an Iatmul ritual occurring between those males who identified themselves as in-laws to their sisters’ sons (luau). Members of the submissive group would not necessarily show the same cultural submission towards same members of that group in many other activities. If the luau achieved a kill, or asserted himself in some way as a result of his bold action, the mother’s brother would then act out the statement, ‘I am a woman’ or ‘mother-in-law’ (wau) and, putting on women’s dress, would then begin a parade through the village. Bateson’s interpretation of this act was that even though the transvestite performance is a vicarious boast, it is compensatory. The wau is saying, ‘My luau has eclipsed me – I am a fine fellow to have a luau like that’. Naven ritual evoked transvestite activity. He explained this as ‘complementary behaviour’ which inverted the relationship normally existing between wau and luau that revolved around the polarities of wau cultural dominance to luau submissiveness. The naven ritual therefore was ‘a process of differentiation in the norms of individual behaviour resulting from cumulative interaction between individuals’ that is, a response to a pattern of responses.

Iatmul did not live continually on the edge of a vicious spiral of progressive differentiation. There were other possibilities for restraint through a number of interventions besides that of naven. One of these – to paraphrase – was an awareness that carrying boastful, aggressive behaviour too far would result in an understanding by the competing parties that ‘now that fellow’s really done himself in by doing that’. Other processes evoked patterns of consensus building. He presented his study of schismogenesis as events leading toward directions of change. Anthropologists, he noted, are so often immersed in their discussions of structure and function, both of which were static renditions, and neglect to discuss processes of change. His discussion of naven was an attempt to move away from a classic ethnographic notebook approach, to a discussion of ‘process’.

Once introduced to cybernetics after World War Two, Bateson would call the dynamics of ritual compensation performed as naven as ‘feedback,’ while activity not compensated by naven (activity that might quickly escalate as conflict piled on conflict all of which leads toward village break-up) he termed ‘feed-forward.’ At the time of writing Naven, he admitted that he incompletely understood how the dynamics of inverse processes dampen down the potential for runaway or vicious cycles – that which cybernetics termed ‘feedback.’ But he understood that each of these processes of response were complementary duals of one another.

Body/Mind : Gregory Bateson and Margaret Mead in Bali (1936-1938)

Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson married shortly before they began their research on Bali. They had met while both were undertaking their own separate researches in New Guinea.

Mead’s approach in Bali material is an extension of her prior work in Samoa and New Guinea – and was enlarging upon her prior accomplishments of detailed observation of childhood, parenthood, socialization and development of a cultural personality through learning that takes place in the individual mother-child bond. This was then related to other somatic aspects of learning in the culture, which, in turn, was taken to be a microcosm for interaction in wider practices of culture. In Mead’s writing, all of this resonates in personality, or in national character.

Within anthropology, her readers felt she came close enough to be identified with Freudian perspectives. Yet she was far enough away from Freud to be roundly criticized by professional psychiatrists in her field of culture and personality studies. These cultural psychiatrists hoped to demonstrate that there were ‘basic personality types’ in all cultures and that the profiles of basic personalities around the globe could be compared with one another. Mead favoured a framework of social roles as norms, and at that time role-making and role-taking were novel approaches in anthropology.

In Bali the two fieldworkers produced 3,500 typewritten pages of field notes, had shot 20,000 feet of ciné film, and about 4000 photographs. The amount of material that they collected and produced in such a relatively short period of time says something about the neck-breaking speed at which they jointly worked. The material they compiled together demonstrated several innovations in fieldwork techniques. First, they used some of the latest technology available, i.e dictaphones, ciné film and Leica camera photography. Mead said that this led to widespread improvement in her fieldwork techniques. Bateson noted that working with ciné and camera were so different from anything either of them had done before, that ‘we could hardly know how significant their evidence is ‘till we have some material collected on the same plan from a different culture’.

Jane Belo, who joined them 1936, noted that their method involved using photographic stills of behaviour sequences, which they then corroborated with ciné film and meticulous note taking, all of this synchronized by a chronometer timing of their watches (Belo, 1970 : xxv). So massive was the material they had collected that it would have required concerted work over the best part of several years to present to scholarly or public audiences, even in normal circumstances of peacetime. The circumstances of the Second World War were to intervene. The initial presentation of their study entitled Balinese Character : A Photographic Analysis was a hurried affair, a visual collage rather than detailed ethnography. It appeared in 1942 and was followed by an exhibit in 1943 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Bateson entitled the latter ‘Bali : Background for War : The Human Problem in Reoccupation’. Yet the exhibit presented only 169 of the vast number of photos Bateson had taken, together with Bateson’s commentary on them. Though the exhibit was marginally successful and went on tour, response from the public suggested that its thematic presentation of Bali culture was too complex. The public had yet to become familiar with visual presentations about strange cultures.

Bateson was drawn to the gestalt presentation of cultures as they appeared in Ruth Benedict’s Patterns of Culture (Benedict, 1934). From the very beginning of his Bali field trip, he was struck by the possibilities of there being an overall ‘configuration’ in a culture which gave a bias or a tone to a wide range of social organization, to perception, socialization, cultural interactions and ritual. He was also interested in Benjamin Whorf’s study of pattern formation for Whorf viewed the process of generating patterns (in his case linguistic patterns) as something akin to a morphogenetic process in biology. Whorf proposed that there was a presence of basic forms which permitted a coupling with large patterns of affective states, and these, in turn, served as boundary conditions for subsequent behaviour. This Whorfian idea remained with Bateson who, much later, attached it to his own ideas of organism-environmental activity.

He was also wrestling with as yet unformed ideas about perception and its relation to body-mind interaction. Bateson was entranced with the bodily posture and movement of the Balinese. From the moment he arrived, he and Mead chose to stay in a village in the lowland area where there was plenty of ceremonial dancing, ritual dramas and ‘trance stuff’, some of it even specially arranged for tourists. His profusion of observations soon led him to conclude that Balinese cultural emphasis on body movement and gesture was in many ways a ‘reversal’ of similar types of behaviour apparent in Western culture. When the Balinese undertook work of any sort in ordinary daily life, working in the fields, women pounding rice, walking about, he noted that the body is beautifully oriented to the job with no irrelevant tenseness anywhere and with ‘an extraordinary ease’ in shifting from one occupation to another. It was as if every movement were so habitual as to be hardly conscious. In their dancing, on the other hand, there was a high level of tension leading to trance-like states.

The contrast between dance and daily life is just the reverse of what we strive after. Where we labour in daily life with consciously coordinated movement and enjoy dance as an occasion where when we watch or perhaps achieve automatic coordination ; the Balinese live automatically and dance consciously (LOC General Correspondence, Bateson to Bartlett, 1936).

F. G. Bartlett’s work at Cambridge on memory and mind had influenced him greatly when he was writing up his material on the Iatmul of New Guinea, for the Iatmul had an extraordinary ability to remember. In Bali fieldwork he uncovered a completely different configuration through the stimuli of dance and trance, and he hoped that it might be possible to study classification in terms of personality. Bartlett replied that while such a classification of personality might have something to do with ‘thinking,’ or of rote memory of bodily positions and intensive routines in those learning to dance, that none of this was the type of cognition which is of interest to the psychologist. For the psychologist any such classification, like the one Bateson had proposed, would be regarded as ‘cognitive’ only in a derivative sense.

If Bateson was interested in continuing to link his hypotheses about bodily posture to thinking (eidos), Bartlett wrote, he might have to revert the more standard linkage between body movement and known effects of pleasure and displeasure. Bartlett pointed out that between the known effects of pleasure-displeasure, and a plausible theory of the emotions, is ‘an enormous gap’ which seems to depend largely on different response systems in the body and the mind that are becoming linked or prevented from becoming linked. And this was a hypothesis that might then be tested in culturally important ways.

Bateson also emphasized in his letters to Bartlett the peculiar juxtaposition that seemed to exist in Bali culture, between their overwhelming display of body postures in varying social situations, a display which is also emphasized in their creative art, and their complete reticence in verbalizing their interpretation of social interaction. So while it seemed to be an easy task for the fieldworker to move from descriptive data to hypotheses, in fact it was not, he wrote. The Balinese seemed to be socially passive ; their social conventions put pressure on individuals to behave in an inarticulate manner. A constant necessity was their having to learn ‘skill necessary to walk the tightrope of social conventions’ (LOC General Correspondence, Bateson to Bartlett, 1937). It was all a total contrast with the social extroversion, and braggadocio of Iatmul in New Guinea.

Resolution did not seem to come until quite late in their field trip. He wrote to Bartlett : ‘From the very first time that we saw kris dancing we knew that the trance was closely linked up with orgasm’. Their initial investigations had left open the question of whether the orgasm achieved was primarily sexual. Subsequent investigation had shown that the motions of the two sexes in the dance were fundamentally different in their emphasis. Both sexes dance leaning backwards, when holding the kris. While the men are holding the kris, they hold it at a 45-degree angle to the body with its point towards the sternum and its handle towards the sky. But when the women dance, they accentuate the lowering of the kris while the men accentuating the act of raising it, the epicycles of raising and lowering becoming synchronized in the dance. There was justification for isolating and classifying a range in postures of other sorts, with the kris dance as fundamental. From here it would be possible to develop an analysis of the standardized systems of posture-gesture relating both to bodily movement, to the conception of balance in Balinese social interaction, to cultural training for sexual encounters, and to the substitution effects for lack of violence in Bali society (LOC General Correspondence, Bateson to Bartlett, 1937).

Had the two known about biofeedback and digital coding at this stage of their careers, their understanding of what they seemed to observe as ‘rote muscle memory’, and ‘parrot like behaviour’ would almost certainly have changed, and may well have altered their whole approach to the question of ‘linked responses’. It would have prompted further pursuit of narratives about way in which the Bali people exhibited body parts and their practice and teaching of these parts as if these had a quasi-autonomy. Today the Balinese predilection for going into trance-like states during cultural performances, dances, festivals, is a top attraction for tourists but in Bateson’s time required extra anthropological explanation of notions of balance both mental and physical in society for some dancers attacked themselves with the kris, during trance like sequence. In place of a study of rule-governed interaction, all Bateson and Mead could do is to put activity down to notions of ‘increase in intensity’ related to sexuality.

The Second World War

For Bateson, then living with Margaret Mead in the United States, the war began in July 1943. Despite his varied assignments, he regarded his wartime efforts as unproductive. As he put it, he was engaged in ‘reasonably useless attempts to apply anthropology in the Far East to Propaganda (LOC General Correspondence, Bateson to Hutton, 1946). For the first couple of years this may have been the case. As a civilian, Bateson was not required to take part in any military operation, though in August 1945 he volunteered ‘to penetrate deep into enemy territory in order to attempt the rescue of three agents believed to have escaped after their capture by the Japanese’, as the affidavit accompanying his campaign medal for action in the Pacific stated. Otherwise he helped start news-sheets, planted news information in established papers, analysed raw intelligence from intelligence networks for the OSS (Office of Strategic Services) and on occasion wrote papers analysing long-term intelligence strategies.

Though he was attached to U.S. Forces, he met and coordinated with the British administrators in India and Ceylon (Sri Lanka), and on the India-Burma (Myanmar) border in the Arakan Peninsular on what he described as ‘mixed psychological and anthropological intelligence’. He thought he had managed on occasion to help smooth over relations between the Americans and the British Imperial administration in India ; otherwise it was ‘interesting’ at times, but ‘a total waste of time so far as any visible effect on planning and policies’ (LOC General Correspondence, Bateson to Radcliffe-Brown, 121/08/1946). He was particularly scathing in his letters about the British bureaucrats attached to the Imperial High Command that he met in India.

Towards the end of the war, he was more active. His outfit, MO (Morale Operations), had sweeping responsibility for propaganda to accompany its sabotage and guerrilla warfare in the Burma-India area. The Morale Operations branch of the OSS, to which Bateson was assigned, was formed in January 1943 to mount black propaganda operations of all varieties in enemy territory. ‘Black’ propaganda was propaganda that was not officially recognized, while ‘white’ propaganda was publicly accounted for. Bateson reported his part in black radio broadcasting to Japan in subsequent articles after the war. It consisted in creating that which would today be called ‘fake news’ by undermining the official radio news of the Japanese to their troops and to their occupied territories. It did so through relaying exactly the same information that the Japanese reported, whether of Japanese casualties or of allied losses, except for doubling the figures, and thus throwing doubt on the veracity of the Japanese news. There were other propaganda stunts, but these seem to have got nowhere.

Overall, the time with the MO gave him insight into the use of communication technology, but also time to read academic papers on the new subject of information and communication. Cybernetics would add a whole new layer of understanding about this in its study of circular causal systems. He wrote to Radcliffe-Brown after the war :

‘I was remarkably close to the answers (about circular causal systems) with schismogenesis – analyzing this as a circular system in which variable A promotes B, which promotes A etc – in the best Marxian manner. But both I and Marx slipped in failing to see that there also exist circular causal systems which instead of being self-maximating are self-correcting … and the whole of social science and psychology is thereby placed in an entirely new framework – and the old ego gets chucked out of the window, decapitated by Occam’s Razor (of feedback) (LOC General Correspondence to Radcliffe-Brown, 1946)

The Richardson Process (1949)

Bateson mentions in his article ‘From Anthropology to Epistemology’ that the publication in 1949 of ‘Richardson equations for armaments races’ was a ‘career changer’ for him, but he does not say why. In other accounts he refers to as ‘The Richardson Process.’ No further details are given as to what this might mean. ‘Richardson’ refers to Lewis Fry Richardson, a mathematician who in later years was to become quite famous as one of the founders of chaos theory. Bateson wanted to contact him to find out if Richardson felt there was any relation between his own work on schismogenesis and the work that Richardson had done on the pattern of arms races.

Lewis Fry Richardson had shown that arms build-up and war were much more likely to occur through cumulative interaction between individuals, a second order patterning, rather than through rational policy devised by states. The arms build-up process yielded processes of differentiation leading to vicious circles of interaction (Richardson, 1960). Against the usual suppositions about war as a rational policy taken in the interests of a nation, and only undertaken as a last resort, Richardson showed the causes of war were brought about by such things as psychological attitudes and moods between and among actors in different states. Bateson thought that Richardson’s study was reminiscent of out-of-control schismogenesis among Iatmul, to which the conception of ‘balance’ that he and Mead devised out of their fieldwork in Bali, was a counterpoint.

He learned that patterns of schismogenesis are different at a second-order level, namely that of response-to-response. In the case of symmetrical schismogenesis, two nations affected only by rivalry, cost, and fixed grievances can form a system that is necessarily stable. But in complementary schismogenesis – that of dominance-submission – the origin may be unstable, and further chances of stability can only depend upon creating whirlpool points that circulate in the opposite direction.

The most prominent feature that emerged from Richardson’s overall approach was his emphasis on interactive communication, indicating that any pattern of interaction in an arms race constitutes a single unit of communicative interaction, rather several singular actions, each separately conceived as proposal and response. The two terms symmetrical and complementary and their significance have since entered into the vocabulary of today’s interpersonal communication theory. One other prominent feature that emerged from Richardson’s overall approach was his emphasis on the importance of the types of pattern generated through interactive communication for any pattern of interaction.

Diplomacy in an arms race constitutes an ongoing single unit of communicative interaction, which is circular communication, rather than two actions of message and response separately delivered. This is of importance in the cumulative interaction process. It is the perceived hostility, not objective hostility in any particular message content that is important. Image formation about hostility and the mutuality, hate or trust, is foremost in the composite of communicative interactions. The forward percept of what might happen, in other words anticipative outcomes in the symmetrical exchanges of arms races, together with the percept of hate or trust, is more efficacious than any rational or self-maximizing thinking. Thus the two communicating parties add a third dimension to their diplomatic exchanges. It is this third register that expresses the actual relationship in negotiation, and is the primary source for success or failure. He noted that schisms were an outcome of the failure in appropriate communication between rivals ; the pattern of communication was causal. It invoked changes in social relationships that then required social re-adjustments (Richardson, 1960).

He also learned from cybernetics that there were inverse processes in feedback which could be used to stabilize impending instability. Feedback appeared to be a derivative of all circularly formed mutual causal processes, and by contrast, were absent in lineally formed processes. In effect, feedback processes were a general mode of avoiding instability in both technical and natural formations. This was a dramatic discovery. So too was learning about the importance of circularity as a characteristic of all living systems. Both became the basis of all subsequent work.

Ethnographic Study of Schizophrenia in Palo Alto

Bateson divorced Margaret Mead in 1950. Far from ‘leaving anthropology’ after his divorce, he began to turn his ethnographic vision of anthropology into a trans-disciplinary framework. This consisted first in exploring and transforming communication theory, and secondly drawing his new understanding of communication into his research on schizophrenia at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Palo Alto. His approach to communication was now interactive, an account of the ‘in-between’ relations of communicators matched to cybernetic feedback. The two merged in his diagnosis of ‘double bind’, which was to become well known, both to professionals in family therapy and to the public at large.

For some reason Bateson did not mention these productive years (1949-1963) in his brief autobiography, ‘From Anthropology to Epistemology’. At the Veterans Hospital in Palo Alto his particular task was developing ethnography about schizophrenics, which later turned to devising therapy. It also led him to write about their loss of a notion of self and hence, loss of self-organization as an issue stemming from inter-personal communication.

Bateson’s ethnography and research was so original because researchers in social science, from the mid-1940s to the mid-1960s – and even later – focused their attention on information as a means of control. And they reported on the means of control in a linear mode of presentation. Whether it was control of work through group performance, or control of the personality of individuals, or techniques of mass persuasion, the social interaction literature usually reduced information to an aspect of energy or ‘force’. Both ‘energy’ and ‘force’ were analysed as linear relationships supported by quantitative data.

One set of studies was oriented towards psychic tensions existing between personalities as a synonym for energy transformation. Typical of this psychic tension school was Harry Stack Sullivan, who provides an interesting contrast to Bateson in that his work covered similar areas of study but with entirely different underlying assumptions. For others, ‘work’ and ‘energy efficiency’ were key frameworks for assessing group behaviour, with a heavy emphasis on behaviour relating to commodity production, competition, and planning. Researchers studying groups and organizations tended to take the qualitative and/or expressive aspect of communication messages for granted. Theoretical use of ‘information’ in social science journals stressed compliance, cohesiveness, and uniformity. Alternatively, expressive events in communication were regarded as being ‘severely stochastic’, that is, a large number of different events follow one another in sequences that are seemingly random. Supposed ‘objective’ consideration of rationality, supported through mathematical formulations, had great influence and went unchallenged.

Typically, social psychologists believed that group cohesiveness was an outcome of a shared ‘force’ of individual satisfactions which bound individuals into groups and which gave the groups their stability. Often the central concern of the study of leadership in groups was tied closely to this profile of cohesiveness. Such a focus could be justified in case studies of workflow in industrial plants or bureaucracies, but coordination and control of work appeared as the structural themes of relationships in almost any study of organization. In fact, organization was itself defined as the outcome of an individual performing with respect to an ‘object’, which maybe ‘a tool’, but equally might be ‘a symbol’ or an inanimate object, or another human being (Perrow, 1967, 194–208). A usual method used in estimating cohesiveness of group organization was some form of attitude survey or sociometric study. The latter quantified results from estimates of ‘attraction’ or ‘repulsion’ to various forms of social interaction, with ‘attraction’ or ‘repulsion’ estimates drawn from scales devised by the researcher. Usually the scales were linked to forms of ‘hedonic satisfaction’ – i.e., the pleasure/pain principle, or other utilitarian criteria (Moreno, 1934).

There were only a limited few – Jerome Bruner, Kenneth Boulding, and Erving Goffman – who considered information as being that of a sign detached either from force or from psychic energy. These important writers appreciated Bateson’s qualitative understanding of ‘framing’ in communication, but they did not go into the detailed examination of communication as a third frame lying in-between the two communicators.

Likewise, Bateson felt he could not rely upon any studies of information attached to the social-psychological theories of his time. Many of these drew their studies encased in the language of transaction as if they were reports on the economic marketplace. Authors unashamedly acknowledged that their modes of analysis made interpersonal stances no different from any other commodities subject to exchange. Just like any other thing or object of value, their interpersonal marketplace depicted regulated exchange of satisfaction via negotiated contracts. Normative rules in social behaviour were deemed to operate like any other commodity. In effect, social interaction research befuddled any distinction between human autonomy and variance. Anthropology, specifically in the growing topic of social network analysis in urban situations, reported results drawn from interpersonal transactions based on digraphs, signed graphs, as if they were transactions of market-oriented actors (Mitchell, 1969).

There was little mention of feedback in the organizational literature, and when used, the concept of feedback was often put in quotation marks. Sometimes it appeared in studies where the members of the organization negotiated alterations on the nature or sequence of tasks performed by different units. In other words, ‘feedback’ (in quotes) was instrumental in helping coordinate between various actions on objects and, therefore, was a useful means of achieving results through better planning.

By definition, communicative interrelations arise out of interaction, Bateson countered, so that their binding nature results from events that are always relational and from events that have occurred previously between the communicants. Prior events yield contexts of information exchange. Even injunctive commands in the here and now have elements of contextual meaning as second-order responses. Considering communication messages as a set of events occurring solely out of individual brains in the here and now moment is a downwards reductionism truncating the whole phenomenon of the relationship of communicators.

Moreover, all talk is in some way organized through connective rules, especially in family organization, said Bateson. For the researcher observing communication, connective rules of relationship generate patterns that are meaningful for each individual engaged in communication, but they also permit ways in which an observer can examine the rich tapestry of interaction sequences in family organization. Another aspect of the same idea is that contexts of communication create the communicator’s subjective state in the first place. If the context for an individual engaging in communication requires premises in order to give meaning to the interactive messages, then rules about premises trigger patterns of interactive communication. They could even be formed from a habit linked to a particular type of feedback occurring among ‘other’ communicants than those present at the moment.

Clearly a communicative situation could not be assessed in the same way as an energy transformation. Rather, the communicative situation refers to rule-governed interactions implicating prior feedback. In keeping with his approach originally developed in Naven, different contexts are operative at different points in time, so those in communication implicitly propose, agree or disagree, and hold each other accountable for, agreements about the interpretation of their interactions. The whole notion of the energy or force of information creating order through communicative exchange needed to be thoroughly revised.


The announcement in the 1940s of the Josiah Macy Conferences on Cybernetics had piqued Bateson’s interest. The notion of ‘feedback’ was introduced by Norbert Wiener. During the war Wiener’s notion of automated feedback was used to control anti-aircraft fire – with the automated control feature being much faster and accurate in its tracking aircraft movements than through individual human assessment. Post-war, the idea of machines driven by automated control, or some form of numeric control had proposed endless possibilities. In a mechanistic sense, information loops in a cybernetic circuit are designed to anticipate system output by feeding back information to input in order to adjust to ongoing variance or oscillation via a reference point inserted into the circuits of the system – so correcting deviance from this reference point. A problem remained, however. Though non-linear, or circular in conception, cybernetics had a strong mechanistic base.

In his first publication following the Macy Conferences, Bateson and his co-author Jurgen Ruesch attempted to counter this mechanistic bias (Ruesch and Bateson, 1951). They talked about the post-war world as one in which psychological man, in the sense of the older notions of ‘individual’ in faculty psychology was dead, and a group or network oriented social man had taken his place. What was lacking was a connecting link, a logic of in-between that would enable scientists to connect person-to-person, person-to-group and group-to-wider social order. Cybernetics, together with information theory, pointed the way. They felt that if they were to model such a connecting link, the focus of connection should not be on the individual person in the group, but upon the message and the circuits of messages as units of study. A circuit of information passes from person through groups to that wider society and returns, undergoing transformation. In this circular ordering, modern cybernetics would then substitute ‘relations’ for ‘entities’ ; ‘constraints’ for linear causality ; circuits of information for transfer of energy ; ‘messages’ for ‘facts.’ In place of single individuals as the foci of attention would emerge a network with premises having differing levels of relevance, the idea of a social network being attached to such a network of premises. This was the theme of the opening of the second edition of their book (Bateson, MC ‘Foreward’ to Communication : The Social Matrix of Society 20/06/1967).

As time went by, Bateson (among others) felt he had to extricate cybernetics from its multiple materialist conceptions so that cybernetics could expand the range of its more radical features, for example, the correction of error through feedback adjustment could be re-interpreted as a form of ‘learning.’ So interpreted, the repetitions and oscillations observed in energy flow could also be said to express information qua information in the non-technical sense of ‘meaningful news’. More interestingly, the whole circularity of cybernetics gave impetus to understanding of purpose, ‘that old devil of philosophical enquiry in the western world’ as constraints in circular events that repeat themselves. This would give impetus to both notions of habit formation and to notions of mental anticipation. It accounted for how certain organisms, including human beings, are often able to increase their level of organization, creating order from chaos. If this was shown to be the case, then there were possibilities for exploring biofeedback, and to examining ‘feedback’ as an internal event in general organic processes, rather than being limited to manufactured wires and reference regulators in thermostats.

Yet the prevailing views had left little room for the conception of information as being ‘meaningful’. Neither the Shannon definition based on signal/noise ratios, nor the Wiener definition of information included any reference to ‘meaning’. It was Wiener’s opinion at the start of the Macy Cybernetic Conferences that neither cybernetics nor information theory had much relevance to the notion of information as ‘meaning’ as is commonly used. Information was an aspect of a message, in that a signal was transmitted, its success as a signal demonstrated in its ability to overcome noise. To this notion of information Wiener added that communication was a constraint on the production of entropy in local systems, a sort of ‘negentropy’. In the technical sense this indicated that the relationship between thermodynamics and ordering processes is a type of ‘conservation of time’.

Wiener tried to generalize this process by identifying it as creating a sort of ‘time binding,’ that is a localized reversal of the arrow of time. This representation of ‘time binding’ was using the term ‘information’ in a very special way. Even at the end of the Macy Conferences, Heinz von Foerster, for a long time secretary of the Cybernetics group, noted that while both ‘time binding’ had become acceptable as “information” in a professional way – and was therefore used in discussion by the cybernetics group as ‘information,’ its terminology it did not apply to most human situations – where information was associated with ‘meaning.’

One prominent cyberneticist took on the notion that information was connected with increasing variety. Ross Ashby introduced the ‘Law of Requisite Variety’, and the proposition that only variety can control an increase in variety (Ashby, 1960). Ashby illustrated these principles of adaptation by means of an electro-mechanical model that he built which he called a homeostat, and through this demonstrated how change in stable systems was accommodated through step mechanisms. The homeostat changed values – took a step – only when the oscillation of a system passed definite thresholds restraining the systems’ critical states.

Bateson understood the importance of Ashby’s demonstration, particularly his relation of step mechanisms to the processes of learning, and the processes of learning to the restraint of variety. At first this seemed to link to Bateson’s own earlier work on cultural aspects of learning that he had undertaken together with Margaret Mead. Yet, on closer analysis he began to develop considerable doubts about the assumptions employed in Ashby’s homeostat. One doubt concerned the issue of noise noted above. In biological systems, Bateson had proposed noise was an enormous flexibility in living systems in the ‘time binding’ stage (bioentropy in contrast to the later stage of thermodynamic entropy) and, instead of being a destructor of information, as in the later phase, was a vital source for future adaptations to new patterns. Second, if Ashby’s homeostat did not permit the recycling of error, but treated all error as an oscillation throughout the whole circuit which the homeostat would have to constrain, this seemed to be design error. Biological adaptation had to include the possibilities for a system or subsystems to recycle many errors – and in the process create new patterns from noisy sources – or a vast potential for biological change was lost.

A closer look at Ashby’s models of homeostasis showed that homeostat-type modelling could not represent interactive communication in the manner that Bateson proposed. In the Ashby design of a homeostat, organism and environment were supposed to be interactive and interrelated as part-to-whole. This was achieved through having one system’s input coupled to another system’s output and vice versa. This supposedly accounted for mutuality in communication, and how each could respond to perturbations or change in variety. Yet without any feedback to the overall setting, the setting of relations in the system would remain confused as between part and whole. In any learning situation, information of perturbation and change must also include news about the difference of the boundaries between living organisms and environment. Here boundary conditions were absent. In this respect, his homeostat resembled a clockwork machine rather than a living organism.

In addition, Bateson recognized that ‘meaning’ in messages does not emanate from a single, controlling homeobox in the nervous system. The topological form of messaging had to incorporate both ‘sender’ and ‘receiver’ of messages if it were to represent the topological form of interactive communication. And without a clearly defined context of relations, the import of information about organism-environment relations – and the meaning of ‘in-between’ content – would be obscure. The homeostat reduced system stabilities to a singly determined oscillation, the reduction of noise. In effect, Ashby, despite claims to the contrary, had invented an electro-mechanical device whose assumptions of control were only appropriate to functional interrelations in an energy-driven system. It lacked both ‘perception’ and ‘mind’.

Nevertheless, Ashby had extended prevailing notions of feedback in cybernetic systems into a general model of adaptation and change for any behavioural system. Ashby showed how processes of learning were correlated with biological adaptation. In addition, the correlative matching of an organism with its environment generates processes that change the behaviour of an organism to a more survival-promoting form. And from these principles, it was evident that the interaction of organism and environment might be applicable to the much broader field of evolution.

Bateson did not disagree with Ashby’s overall argument about learning as an non-linear extension of the notion of feedback. But he did disagree with the homeostat as a specific model of learning. Margaret Mead had focused her research on cultural patterns of learning, and Bateson, in the years following fieldwork, had taken up her discussion of learning, building on Margaret Mead’s evidence. He soon began to depict learning as a multi-level issue. Learning derived not only through person-to-person familial teaching, but invoked a second level learning, a skill which he called ‘learning to learn’. His discussion of a second order of learning, he termed ‘deutero-learning’, an ability of learning to learn. This was similar in form to the way in which all information requires a context in order to understand the significance and meaning of a message. The crucial difference between mechanical feedback and social or cultural feedback was that much information could not be fully meaningful when communicated as text in a single-level message. It often required several levels of information in order to be understood. In other words, the significance of communication lay not only horizontally ‘in-between’ the dispositions of the communicants, but required an ‘added to’ level, a higher level that communicates the ‘context’ of the communication. The additional components of information in the case of learning required a ‘vertical’ or higher level of information, but the higher level, like the level of in-between communication that he had already identified, was not attached to any physical dimensions of space and time.

Learning : Information Context, and Formulation of ‘Meta’’ Levels

‘The Logical Categories of Learning and Communication’ (Bateson, 2000 : 279-308), a chapter in Steps to an Ecology of Mind, discusses how the various categories of learning might be ‘stacked’ in relation to one another. The full version of this paper was only published in 1964, and corrected in 1971, but prior publications, expressive of these same themes, stretch back into the 1940s. The main purpose of this article was to attack the premises of social and psychological behaviourism, most particularly the latter’s total adhesion to ‘instrumental purposes’, as defining the appropriateness of communicated messages. A theory of communication in learning is therefore not the same as ‘training’, which theories of behaviour propose. Bateson’s definition of learning is that the word ‘denotes change of some order, but to say what kind of change is a delicate matter.’ Change denotes process, but processes are themselves subject to ‘change’.

His steps of learning are classified with respect to correction of error. He begins with zero learning, so named because the circuit structure is not itself subject to self-corrective changes, in the sense of responses to error. In other words, like Ross Ashby’s homeostat, there is a response to conditions of change when passages of impulses, sensory input, enter within the circuit. Information may be specific, but is not subject to response correction, right or wrong. A similar event at a later time will convey the same information. ‘Zero learning’ characterizes the so-called ‘learning’ of cybernetic robots. Its closest human resemblance is game theory, which he sometimes saw enacted by family therapists as family ‘treatment’. Game theory permits discovery of error, and correction to error, but does not permit the individual who discovers his own error to contribute anything to his or her future skill and circumstances. When the same problem returns at a later time, the player will correctly go through the same computations as the time before and reach the same decision. Game theory, therefore, is a theory of correcting errors without undertaking change.

The ‘ladder’ of steps presented is a model for many of his future arguments. Unlike almost all the other empirical theorists of cybernetics, and all behaviourists, Bateson rejected the concept of ‘meaning’ as arising simply from a physical trace in the body, combined with an internal signal from memory. First he draws out distinctions in context, proceeding from the initial receipt of information, to context of information. Then he proceeds to meta-contest of information and then to meta-meta-context. If all learning has within it elements of change, then Learning I contains all those items which are most commonly called ‘learning’ in the standard psychological laboratory. Learning I is a change in specificity of response by correcting errors of choice, and would include the phenomenon of rote learning. In Learning I cases, the organism at Time 2 will give a different response from that which it made at Time 1. This could include loss of habit.

The change that occurs with Learning I is related to an acquisition of the context in which events occur, or, to use the notion of percept, a percept of how events are ‘punctuated.’ Organisms respond to classification that they themselves have made of the elementary signal, either internal signal, or external signal, or a combination of both. In many instances there may be no specific signal or label which will classify and differentiate contexts. Organisms will have to get information from actual congeries of events that make up the context in each case – and then compare. At the same time, other signals classify contexts. However, these levels of information are not ‘logical’ categories in the accepted sense of rationality, but do concern levels of ‘meaning’. Such signals that serve as classifiers could be called ‘context markers’. Or could be called a meta-message.

Bateson proceeds to Learning II after identifying the sort of change occurring in Learning I. Learning II constitutes a change in the process of Learning I, a corrective change in the set of alternatives from which choice is made, or a change in how the sequence of experience is punctuated. Another way of looking at Learning II is describing it as a second-order phenomenon, a ‘learning to learn’ or learning about different contexts in which learning takes place and hence – if one would speak of learning as a form of perception of events – undertaking an change in prior learning of the ‘punctuating’ of how events occur.

This he had discovered when going through Margaret Mead’s ethnographic evidence. Learning I includes the punctuation of events and context marking in human interaction. These lend their shape to processes of Learning II, and create contingency patterns for Learning II which is a change of response to specific patterns of response (already classified as contexts of response), and this change in specific patterns of response is itself induced through change.

The requirement for Learning II, that is to say, the second-order percepts of ‘learning to learn,’ is a change in the process of Leaning II, and is quite common and necessary in human life. For humans, Leaning II is learning about the characteristics of contradiction and the ways in which the human individual can cope and achieve economies in the stream of contradiction which the individual will have to face in life. Failure to deal with such contradictions at level 2 gives rise to ‘double binds’ (see below). In the process of learning to learn, a person leans a set of self-validating premises. Bateson is of the opinion that Freud was correct in suggesting that Learning II acquired in infancy is likely to persist in life and is unconscious. Bateson adds that the unconscious here not only includes that which Freud termed ‘repressed material’ but the much broader range of non-conscious processes and habits of gestalt perception.

Yet it is difficult for scientists to imagine or describe this process of change in learning about Learning II, particularly since all error, and corrections and self-validation of corrections above Zero learning is shown to occur in a circular fashion, and therefore invoke non-linear patterns of anticipation and change in anticipations. The ladder of meaningful change is not strictly hierarchical. In animals there are further difficulties. Wherever purely iconic communication occurs, as in the case of animals, the form of comparison is different. One context marker is ‘not’ the other context marker, because there is no digital signal for ‘not’ (Bateson, 1956). Bateson notes :

a) that even in the human world, communication is rarely either purely digital or purely analogic because of an ability to use language.

b) animals are able to make some analogue references in their communicative interactions.

By contrast c) all theorems of cybernetic information theory are digital,

and d) reflecting the work of McCulloch (see below), Bateson notes that human communication is exceptional since all animate existence is digitalized at least at the neuronal level. As will be discussed below, some solutions to this situation can be found in ‘abduction’, or guesswork through the means of perception.

Learning III is a change in the process of Learning II, a corrective change in the whole system in which there is a corrective change in the system of sets from which an alternative is chosen. An individual chooses sets and changes alternatives from his or her set of self-validating premises. It is a meta-message of a meta-message. Learning III involves change in the premises of what is called the ‘character’ of the individual and the definition of ‘self’ in undertaking any form of behavioural-communicative interaction. Learning III must lead to greater flexibility in the premises acquired by the processes of Learning II and a freedom from the bondage of habit. To the degree that a person is able to perceive and act in terms of the contexts of contexts, ‘the concept of self will no longer function as a nodal argument in the punctuation of experience’. In other words, selfhood is a product or aggregate of Learning II, but with Learning III the ego is no longer the aggregate of those characteristics which I call ‘my character,’ and so ‘the self’ takes on less relevance. For example, Bateson would later codify ‘self’ as ‘organism plus environment’. The change is epistemological, Bateson notes, only is it difficult or rare for human beings to undergo changes of epistemology.

Pathology in Human Communication : the Significance of Double Bind

In the article ‘From Anthropology to Epistemology’, Bateson left out discussion of his own work on schizophrenia undertaken at the Palo Alto Veterans Administration Hospital. There seems no reason he should have left it to one side in an autobiography, since the treatment that he developed for schizophrenics, associating communicative binds with schizophrenic behaviour, gave him prominence in the practice of family therapy. On the other hand, critics alleged that the research group had claimed causal connections to healing in their accounting of their work, thus causing controversy. In reality, Bateson took pains to ensure that this interpretation was not what his critics had supposed. He proposed self-re-organization. To follow his argument, he both edited and published an account of a patient who suffered schizophrenia in the nineteenth century, Perceval’s Narrative (Bateson, 1961). It was an account of how a patient suffering from schizophrenia in the 19th century had managed a progressive self-reorganization of his communicative activity and so recovered. Perceval’s narrative is drawn from Perceval’s own diary of how a process of self-reorganization took place, though a ‘curative nightmare’ for the patient.

In his ‘Four Lectures’ (MC CAF #126 as yet unpublished), Bateson discusses his ideas about ‘logical typing’ of meaning, and how it enters into the communicative conditions of schizophrenia. Characteristically ‘schizophrenic’ families display extraordinary inconsistencies in their communication with each other, which they regard as consistent and logical, while, at the same time, the ‘schizophrenic’ member shows almost complete inertia with respect to social relations and is non-communicative. The researchers asked themselves what type of sequences of interpersonal relationships would induce such unconventional habits of response to each other ? Their answer seemed to lie in the argument that a set of circumstances arose in which one member of a family has come to believe that they are in a bind, because all choices of response he or she tries seem untenable, leading to more and more uncomfortable interpersonal relations. Conditions arise in which, within a social unit, a member or members feel bankrupt in making any choice about their response. Over time, such blocking of choice gives rise to seeming paralysis in undertaking any communication. Communicative ‘paralysis’ is commonly demonstrated among members of a schizophrenic family. So non-communication between the schizophrenic and others will, in some sense, seem appropriate for these circumstances. Long-lasting patterns of non-communication then create habitual expectations and so create a vicious cycle of non-interaction. Single binds, or more straightforward dilemmas in family circumstances, could be either painful or traumatic, or could be just plain funny, but the pattern of a double bind, by contrast, is always painful and often destructive. The research team at the Veterans Hospital, Palo Alto noted a strong association between the non-communication of schizophrenics and those distinctive interactions of the family environment, which accounted for schizophrenics’ feeling as if they are ‘on the spot’ at all times. Problems were seen to arise from an inability to deal with the initiating conditions, and inabilities in learning how to learn, or deutero-learning.

Double binds occur where there is no escape from the relationship and where conditions of ‘lock-in’ provide no escape. They occur where there is communicative closure, as in family systems, or in therapeutic situations in hospitals, or cultural double binds, where there can be no stepping out from the bonds of relatedness between communicators. At the same time there is no possibility of cutting off the relationship. Relations of the communicators in a double bind situation are often a result of a long-standing dominant-submissive relation. This means that the ‘bind’ includes not only ‘horizontal’ patterns of communication and feedback, but also ‘vertical’ ordered relationships of disparity among the other members of the communicative group.

In addition, the closure of the system creates contexts and constraints that eliminate or neutralize possibilities of communicating about the double bind. A double bind occurs when the family refuses to address discussion among themselves about conditions creating that vicious cycle of interactions. This acts like a vertical block on top of continuation of ‘horizontal cycles’ (see further discussion in Harries-Jones in Bouissac, 1998, 201-203). Nevertheless there are some means of disrupting vicious cycles among family members, even given the patient’s verbal paralysis. One is for the family therapist to deliberately create ‘paradoxical interventions’. The solution the therapist hopes for when deliberately creating paradox in interaction, is that the family becomes more aware of how these events arise out of the routines of daily living. Paradoxical interventions also can reveal how difficult it is for any one single family member to attempt to control them.

The notion of ‘double bind’ was by far the most notable contribution of the Bateson’s research group. Apart from the originality of the group’s approach to the pathology of communication, ‘double bind’ gave the English language a new phrase. The colloquial interpretation of ‘bind’ has come to mean something like ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t.’ But colloquial interpretation depicts the circumstances of a single bind, rather than a double bind. If faced with a ‘damned if I do and damned if I don’t’ situation, a person may choose the lesser of two evils. But when faced with two conflicting levels of message that are in some way injunctive, and in which there is both a message and a meta-message so that he/she cannot obey one without the other, the situation is very different. A conundrum arises : ‘I want you to disobey me’ where if he/she obeys, he/she is disobeying, and if he/she disobeys, he/she is obeying. From a subjective view of the ‘victim,’ any move on the part of that ‘victim’ disqualifies the interaction that the ‘victim’ undertakes. This produces a process of continual going-around from one pattern of feedback to another pattern of feedback which the former always evoked, and from which the family could never seem to extract themselves. To change the continual going-around required a change in the initial set of conditions, but these also seemed to be blocked. Any change in the context of existing communication patterns seems to threaten the very survival of the ‘self’ in relation to all other relationships within the family.

The blocked reflexivity, or inability to find another starting point, occurs because none of the parties dare attempt meta-communication, for the consequences for doing so would seem to be too destructive of their own selfhood in their own pattern of interaction within systemic relationships within the family, i.e., as husband and wife, mother and child, father and child. Any communication on the victim’s part to undertake meta-communication is disqualified, while other attempts to meta-communicate usually end up in becoming part of a sequence of destructive emotional feedback. In a more general sense, double bind can, therefore, be considered as an example in which the ‘victim’ is repeatedly required to support both sides of an injunctive paradox in a relationship.

Double binding patterns of communication would not be so destructive were it not for their constant repetitions effecting a victim’s understanding of communication contexts – and hence modes of classification of context. Over time, participants in the double bind situation can become less and less capable of handling the situation. The vicious circle of supporting both sides of the bind becomes more and more dysfunctional. If the family involved is dysfunctional (in a communicative sense), dysfunctional feedback itself becomes learned, and the outcome can lead to a type of psychological paradox in which the various participants appear to be powerless to act on or restrain outcomes. The family will interact in a way that maintains the pathology of the bind. In addition, the family communication process seems to find the context of pathological communication logical, plausible and consistent, thus reinforcing the overall pattern of events. Only ‘the victim’ finds the situation untenable or absurd.

Bateson’s approach to schizophrenia was that of ‘many levels’ including the level of social relatedness. Yet single-level determinism in schizophrenia, that is to say ‘genetic determinism’, was strongly supported at the time, and today is still favoured by advocacy groups supporting for patients of schizophrenia. Those who recognize the validity of Bateson’s ‘many levels’ approach point out the fruitfulness of fostering peer group communication. Communication among the afflicted and their families and friends about the many facets of their illness, they believe, is an important aspect in amelioration of pathological effects of schizophrenia. A discussion of symptoms has two ameliorative results : first, it alleviates the pathology, and second it becomes a means through which schizophrenics can find a way out of their affliction (MC Letters to Lilly 17/07/1967). Confrontation between single genetic level and the ‘many level’ alternatives still continues.

His group achieved success in both Italy and Great Britain, as well as in North America. The Milan School of Psychotherapy, for example, concentrated on Bateson’s observations about paradox, and by taking the notion of counter-paradox as a methodology, developed casebook studies of psychotherapy using this counter motif. Not unsurprisingly, the European country most sympathetic to Bateson’s view was Great Britain, especially in the writing of the British psychotherapist R. D. Laing. Laing realized how profoundly Bateson’s notion of ‘madness’ as an ‘inner voyage’ with its own endogenous dynamics spoke to Laing’s own personal experience of mental illness. He also cites the horrified response of his colleagues to his own acts of setting up a ‘rumpus room’ for patients, thus mixing schizophrenics and staff in order to dispel the patient’s interactive isolation, but so initiating the move towards ‘cure’.

Laing gives Bateson fulsome praise for defining the therapist’s approach to treating pathology by making ‘treatment’ a trial-and-error experiment. The task was to assume a relationship with the sufferer, to latch on to the schizophrenia patient assuming his or her condition as that of any normal human being undergoing affliction. This was utterly divergent to mainstream practices of the day. Isolation of schizophrenics went along with prohibitions against treating these patients in any normal, human, manner. The Bateson’s research group had revolutionized concepts of what is meant by the ‘environment’ of mental illness through taking into account the communicative patterns of patient within the patient’s family as ‘environment,’ so rendering obsolete almost all earlier discussions about the relevance of ‘environment’ to the origins of schizophrenia (Laing, 1961 : 148).

Warren McCulloch : Simulation and Pattern

As noted above, cybernetic modelling dealt with digital information, and in that respect, presented models of feedback in digital terms, assuming in their models that human communication was entirely digital. Bateson expressed continuing frustration with the ‘mechy-machs’, as he sometimes called the communications engineers who made up the bulk of the membership of his society for cybernetics. There was one who made all the difference. Warren McCulloch, like other cyberneticians, was concerned with the rapid transition occurring in the technical order as it increasingly switched from the analogue to the digital code and to numerically controlled machines and computers, but was far from the ‘greater hubris’ that Bateson claimed exuded from so many who accompanied that trend. By this Bateson meant that artificial intelligence was creating an embodiment of the world as the logician would like it to be ‘a tendency to see themselves and others not only as ‘captain’ of their own souls, but of all that surrounds them’ (MC Letters 15/03/1973 to Edmund Leach).

Warren McCulloch was preparing to be a clergyman before he took up mathematics, and Bateson chose his mathematicians carefully. Lewis Fry Richardson was a conscientious objector during World War One, and so was Bertrand Russell, a main source of McCulloch’s ideas. As early as 1948 Bateson wrote to Warren McCulloch, who had been one of those that attended the Josiah Macy conferences, insisting that cybernetics must draw a clear distinction in its formulations so that physical signals are kept distinct from verbal communication, adding that the moment human verbal communication is given only a physical topological form, ‘we are lost’. He pointed out that ‘fictions and lies, both usual aspects of human communication, could not be represented as ‘bits’ – physical signals in topological circuits’ (for further discussion see Harries-Jones, 1995 : 116 - 117).

McCulloch was to be a mathematician equally transformative of Bateson’s ideas as Richardson had been. His exchanges with McCulloch began with McCulloch’s recommendation to Bateson to read beyond what he (Bateson) had read of Bertrand Russell’s The Principles of Mathematics and Principia Mathematica and consider the relevance of the term ‘meta’ as a field of second-order enquiry. Bateson acknowledges that ‘largely under McCulloch’s leadership’ he was able to make headway on his own epistemological approach to what is ‘meta’ to what. In Bateson’s words, this epistemological change ‘superceded all other philosophical approaches’. McCulloch showed him how to relate stochastic learning in both humans and nature so that perception could become ‘a branch of experimental and observational science’ (Bateson, 1991 : 90).

1Like other cyberneticians, McCulloch considered a signal in a message as an impulse, and thus as having a physical topological form, but also recognized that a neural message was not a ‘thing’ but an abstraction, a percept. The result of this consideration lies in the very first section in Steps to an Ecology of Mind, on ‘Metalogues’. A metalogue is a second level construction, a ‘meta-order’ or ‘the meaning of meaning’. A second level order usually invokes several (rather than one meaning). It is polydimensional – instead of remaining as a first level phenomenon of simple ‘dialogue’ between two persons, it engages and contextualizes the communication between them.

Specifically, McCulloch’s study of the topology of nervous networks revealed that because of the “all-or-none” character of nervous activity, that is to say its digital coding, neural events and the relations among them must be treated by means of propositional logic (McCulloch,1965), That is to say there are many particular choices among possible nets, all of which have formal equivalence. Any observer looking at the ‘logic’ of the neural network, will find that for every net behaving under one assumption, there exists another net which behaves under another assumption in which the other assumption gives the same results. There is one major constraint : results of choice of assumption, temporal variance, since results may not coalesce in the same moment of time.

The importance of the formal equivalence lies in this : the relations of the corresponding propositions remain those of the logic of propositions. Alterations actually underlying facilitation, such as extinction or learning in no way affect the formal propositional aspect of these relations. This is in contrast to descriptive based evidence. Thus Bateson’s apprenticeship under McCulloch consisted in a shift from descriptive based evidence (content) to information derived from an observer’s modeling events, or derived from generating ideas through modelling events. In short McCulloch was conveying him to the shores of postmodernism.

‘Warren McCulloch pointed out that the impacting cause [in communication] is no longer a thing but a percept, a transform of certain selected characteristics of the impacting entity. There are no things in the domain of communication. No man, perhaps, can claim to have fully assimilated this generalization’ (MC ‘Foreward’ (unpublished) 1024-3g/1965), Bateson observed.

All of this avoided conventional behaviourist assumptions centred around language and control and becomes especially significant when linking human communication to other forms of animate existence. With this sort of argument, McCulloch began to provide openings through which Bateson could begin to transform engineering vocabulary- for example feedback - into concepts for the social and biological sciences. He also discovered that while the nervous system is coded digitally, as if in logical terms of quantitative analysis, the nervous system is fundamentally relational, deriving its order through congruence of patterned redundancy.

His research showed that the nervous system contains many circular paths, whose activity regenerates excitation of participant neurons. Nets with circles constantly reverberate, so that reference to time past becomes indefinite. Nevertheless, determination of those nets embodied in the activity of nervous nets can be specified, and their implications examined by means of recursive functions. For example, the question of how well you have learned is related to the fact that some recursive learning is enduring and will survive sleep, anaesthesia, convulsions and coma. Thus the coding of simultaneous sequencing with high redundancy of patterning in alternating types of propositional networks was another important feature to consider.

His colleagues had a profound preference for hierarchy when they coded types of processes. They automatically assumed that any ordering of choice will yield a clear summum bonum at the very top of any preference ladder. McCulloch, the would-be clergyman, noted that this pattern, (a summum bonum approach) strongly resembled rankings of preferences in religious practices. This type of linear ordering was far too constraining to represent choice in daily living, therefore creating a strictly ordered ‘up ladder’ should not be the standard procedure in creating codings (McCulloch, 1965).

He coined a term ‘heterarchy’ attesting the play of preferences or ideas at different levels occurring in and between two circuits of information. This discussion melded with his own research on human memory circuits which have long-term and short-term oscillating cycles of memory. For Bateson, McCulloch’s research was a means of showing how learning can occur through stochastic ordering, by showing how we can learn, through learning to learn the multiple patterns in multiple levels in which we were always involved.

Heterarchy was a reply to those ‘soldiers of reason’ who stuck to reductionist appraisals. It meant ‘not hierarchical.’ Heterarchy embraces the idea of multiple layers that adjust to each other. The whole idea of heterarchy had lain dormant for years and, while nearly all other logics were mono-causal in their predictions of ‘that which caused what,’ heterarchy enabled the adoption of pluri-causal selections and pluri-causality. In addition, heterarchical networks would also have to be circular rather than being attached to designs for producing ‘ups and downs’ in lineal forms. Thus the concept of heterarchy was well beyond standard mathematical and logical approaches (von Goldhammer and Paul, 2007 : 1000-1011).

In heterarchical formations, code is grasped in network terms within a non-hierarchical order. This produces a qualitative shift, a re-coding of semiotic ‘objects,’ from their singular features to a coding of organizational aspects of their formal properties. As a result, the process of coding shifts to a concentration on multiple sequences engaged with each other.

Nevertheless, the coding of types of process raises its own problem, namely the possibilities for creating paradox in the loopings or sequences of choices. McCulloch’s achievement here was to design looped ‘cross-overs’, or diallels, which avoid circular paradoxes. These diallels lead to second-level ordering and, as a result, any circularities in preference diminish, and the multiple choices began to demonstrate consistencies. Rather than increasing the entanglements and inconsistencies of choice, McCulloch had discovered that a second level ordering of preference achieved a form of stability, a meta-stability, greater than first level provided. In effect, value anomalies in choice are only ‘anomalous’ when encased within ladders of strict hierarchical ordering. It was a startling finding about levels of circularity, and an achievement which Western philosophy had not then contemplated at that time (Stark, 2011:31).

‘Heterarchy’ had elaborated the idea of multi-looped organizations, i.e. interrelationships, in which patterns are connected to each other at many levels and in many contexts, all in a circle. Hence heterarchy creates new understanding of possible interrelationship in qualitatively different domains. This ‘crucial shift’ enabled Bateson to pursue wider understanding of ‘morphological’ formations. That is to say that in those domains that were originally considered domains of material substance, there are also domains having their own informational or ideational patterns. Classification was no longer entirely dependent on physical characteristics and one could pursue notions of information patterning in areas where previously the rules of research did not allow. Bateson could now feel more confident in defining the unit of any living biological form as ‘organism plus environment.’ Previously the two domains were considered to be separate, at least in the interactive sense. Now, informational coding could express how environment exhibited distinctive patterns of purposive agency as a relational activity, as, for example, mother trees that look after their offspring. Moreover human ‘mind’ can generate ‘an ecology of ideas’ which includes how purposive agency of ecological order is connected circularly, but in ‘meta’ (second-level categories), to human conditions, and vice versa.

Most of all said Bateson :

From now on the focus of theory in a number of sciences will inevitably be upon form [i.e. morphology] rather than content and our perceptions of form that starts from the forms defined in Principia (that is the notion of logical types), which will evolve along with (but lagging behind) future advances in the foundations of mathematics. We are not alone in this change of focus from content and narrative to form. Warren McCulloch was with us and a few others.... (Bateson, 1991:156)

How Redundancy Relates to Perception

Another prominent theme of Warren McCulloch was his elaboration of the concept of redundancy and an understanding of how redundancy relates to perception. The design of the nervous system clearly demonstrates that enormous corruption of digital information will occur in any sort of communication via the senses. To be specific, the eye relays to the brain about one-hundredth of its information, as a result of a constant checking and rechecking of the accuracy of the information which it receives. While overall information is decimated, usable information is enhanced. As a result, the chance that the usable information which the brain receives in error is fantastically small, a billionth of a billionth of a tenth of one per cent. Usable information is a corollary of the primacy of redundancy in neural organization. Redundancy ensures that any element in the neural network is repeated, and repeated, and repeated. Instead of being a supernumerary feature of the neural network, the very primacy of its redundancy ensures an extremely high chance that whatever information the nervous system receives is coincident with something in the world, or, in the term of materialist philosophy, ‘reality’.

The chief reason for the enormous reduction from afferent signals to efferent signals is the requirement of coincidence along the way. Every such requirement of coincidence increases the assurance which can be placed in any subsequent signal, for that signal must then be due to coincidence in the world impinging on our receptors and we achieve an immense certainty that what we observe is due to something in the world. If massive redundancy and the constant washing out of random variations through coincidence detection precludes the usual notions of determinate interconnection, then, argues McCulloch, whatever the mind may be, it is not an embodiment of the logical principles of predictability on which Western science had built so much.

This is why ‘Redundancy’ is one of the most important chapters of Steps to an Ecology of Mind, because it discusses a universal phenomenon equivalent to the universal notion of ‘habit’ related to perception , as used by the logician C. S. Peirce, or ‘habitus’ in the case of the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. It also underlines a progression in Bateson’s thinking, the change of focus from content and narrative, which lies at the base of ethnography, and from simple notions of context in situations of learning, which characterized his earlier ideas in cybernetics, to a notion of ‘form’ in information and what that might mean in the apprehension of perception.

Redundancy groups all methods of coding under the single rubric of part-for-whole. It is possible to find part-for-whole coding in a variety of codes besides those of iconicity. They include digital, analogic, ostensive and the causal correlative coding of empirical testing. Evolutionary coding is unusual, because information which is accumulated in organisms by evolutionary process is not usually those codes listed above. It is rather ‘complementary’ to those environmental phenomena to which the organisms must adjust. Thus the embryo shark does not have information about hydrodynamics but about how to grow a shape which will necessarily develop as a complement to the surrounding hydrodynamics.

Bateson believed that as a result of McCulloch’s work, most behaviourist principles based on the notion of continuous implication would have to be revised. So, too, would that part of psychoanalysis which assumed that consciousness provided a continuity between the representation of the ‘real world’ outside individuals’ bodies and the ‘world’ inside their heads. McCulloch and others had struck at the central dogma of Western science. By showing that the brain is not a separate centre of the body, but is an embodiment of ideas, feelings, memory, and aesthetics, he had totally reformulated body-mind relations and expunged their supposed dualism :

Bateson had written in one of his early letters to McCulloch, ‘A queer business how the world which previously contained elements of coherence becomes again a jigsaw puzzle when a new theoretical approach is devised, and then one has to go around picking up the pieces all over again’ (MC Bateson, Letters 3/26/1946 or 7/01/1946 to Warren McCulloch).

To Bateson the importance of redundancy did not stop with revelations pertaining to physical architecture of the nervous system. He also pursued the concept of redundancy in relation to certainty and hence to ‘meaning’. When engineers and mathematicians look at the internal structure of message material, the message material is said to contain redundancy if, when the sequence is received with some items missing, the receiver is able to guess at the missing items with better than random success. The term ‘redundancy’ so used in this way must become a synonym for ‘patterning’ and this patterning of message material helps the receiver to differentiate between signal and noise. In addition, the concept ‘redundancy’ seemed to enter into the meta-realm of context and thus becomes – almost – a synonym of ‘meaning.’

As I see it, if the receiver can guess at missing parts of the message, then those parts which are received must, in fact, carry a meaning which refers to the missing parts and is information about those parts... (The) outer world is similarly characterized by redundancy i.e., that when an observer perceives only certain parts of a sequence or a configuration of phenomena, he is in many cases able to guess, with better than random success, at parts which he cannot immediately perceive (Bateson, 1968 : 616).

This also makes events more predictable for animals, as the physical environment contains internal patterning or redundancy. The perception of certain events or objects, or additional sound or other signals from another animal, may contribute redundancy, that is to say, the signal may be ‘about’ the immediate environment. In addition, the sequence of signals will certainly contain redundancy – one signal from an animate organism making another signal from the same kind of animate organism more predictable. Aspects of communicative interaction may contribute redundancy to the universe. Finally, since animals are capable of learning, repetition of sequences leads to their becoming effective communicators through redundant patterning. In the Steps chapter on redundancy (Bateson, 2000 : 416-431), the very term ‘redundancy’ is considered as a general rubric for ‘part-for-whole’ phenomena. The most easily recognized are the different sorts of relationship between part-and-whole that occur in the case of iconic coding among animals. In animals, the part may be real components of an existing sequence, or whole, such as the bared fang of a dog, may be part of a real attack. In the case of humans, redundancy in relationships between persons is preponderantly iconic. It is achieved by means of kinesics, para-linguistics, intention movements, actions, and the like. According to Bateson, some have proposed that these latter were evolutionary forebears of language, but far from being ‘primitive’ forms in humankind, they are the opposite, for they are forms that have become enormously enriched through human cultural performances.

A whole category of messages which ethologists call ‘intention movements’ among animals, is also part-for-whole coding, composed of postures and muscular contractions which, if completed, would be actions of aggression, sex, retreat, eating, nest building, etc. The part may have only a conditional relationship to its whole, in which case the bared fang may be the beginning of a threatened attack, and may be completed unless certain conditions are met. Alternatively, the part may be completely split from the whole which is its referent. Such a case where a bared fang at one given instant may mention an attack, but if and when it occurs, will include a new baring of the fangs. There can be no simple way for an animal to say ‘I will not bite you’.

However their mutual negative agreement of ‘Don’t’ is very different from the subject-predicate negation, ‘Not’ (Bateson, 1968 : 623). ‘I will not bite you’ is generated as an agreement following real or ritual combat. Many of the curious interactions of animals called ‘play’ resemble (but are not) combat. They are cumbersome and awkward methods of achieving the negative through testing and reaffirming their mutual negative agreement. Finally, the part may take on a special ritual or metaphoric meanings in a context where the original whole to which it once referred is no longer relevant. Thus the game of mutual mouthing between mother dog and puppy which once followed her weaning of the pup may become a ritual aggregation.

Perceptual Activity : The Map is not the Territory

Bateson’s metalogue, ‘Why Do Things Have Outlines’ (Bateson, 2000, 27–32) plays with the pun that human beings draw outlines to be clear in their discussions and conversations, but that human beings can never really see an outline of a conversation until the conversation is over. ‘You can never see it (the outline) while you are in the middle of it,’ and by the time the conversation is over, when you can see the outline, it does not matter whether the conversation was clear or not. But then, human beings are not like machines and metalogue supports the conclusion that pattern, not reason, is the underlying phenomena of perception.

He referred to the ‘punctuation’ of perceptual events in his joint book with Jurgen Ruesch, (Ruesch and Bateson, 1951). Punctuation introduces some kind of space, or time or topological boundary into a plenum, or continuum, particularly through scanning. Later, Bateson’s discussion of punctuation in percepts would show that a characteristic of the whole of life is its ability to learn through the contingencies of analogy in punctuated perceptions. The characteristics of these analogical contingencies in relation to behaviour are evidently different among species of living organisms, and can evidently be transformed to human language.

‘The factor of differing time-scales provides a clue to why perceptual and conceptual hypotheses differ, and why they may conflict. For it would be impossible to access the entire corpus of our knowledge for each perception, occurring in a fraction of a second’ (Gregory 1987, 610). Indeed ‘we have perceptual hypotheses and conceptual hypotheses of the world and of ourselves which are different, and which work upon different time scales’. The science is different as well.

Natural science often regards indeterminancy as a weakness, but psychologists, physiologists and philosophers of science do also recognize that, in order to be useful, perception must work very quickly. We may take years in our forming of concepts but perception gives us an ability to probe distance and gain the time needed for intelligent reactions to ongoing events. Perception applies only to the immediate future. Its time frame is one of anticipation, while in conceptual events, the present is read from the past, to enable prediction and planning for the future. This difference in time frames supports a distinction between percept, and conscious conceptual activity.

Perception of the immediate future allows us to survive in a threatening world – and it can even generate hypotheses about the immediate future, Bateson said. Yet people in the Western world, influenced by studies of cognition, discount the unconscious nature of the processes of perception. It is usually a surprise to find out just how little we are conscious of this day-by-day, second-by-second activity of perception. Most people assume in a very real and conscious manner that they see what they look at. ‘What I see when I look at you is, in fact, my image of you… these images are seemingly projected out into the external world but the map is not the territory’ (Bateson, 1991, 204). The problem is, he pointed out, the total unconsciousness of our processes of perception since our mental ‘machinery’ provides only news of its products of perception, and no news about the processes of perception.

Bateson relied on theories of the gestalt school for much of his understanding of perception as it emphasized immediate perception of global attributes through processes in which individual elements combined to form a whole – all accomplished without conscious awareness. The gestalt effect exhibits properties of perception whereby simple geometrical objects are recognized independently of their rotation, translation and scale, as well as elastic deformation, such as that which occurs in the topology of foreground and background.

Another gestalt feature is that of reification, in which the percept experience is deemed to contain more explicit spatial information than the sensory stimulus on which it is based. Gestalt reification usually refers to basic shapes, like the perception of triangles when no triangle is present. Herein lies a perceptual origin of the concept of the ‘fallacy of misplaced concreteness,’ the fallacy which afflicted anthropological researchers when they misread their own anthropological synthesis of cultural structure as actually being a ‘real’ example of the way that culture persists. This example may also demonstrate another feature of gestalt, namely the ‘law of closure’, in which the mind may experience elements it does not perceive directly through sensation in order to complete or increase regularity of a figure. Above all, gestalt theories propose that the operational principle of neurological perception is holistic and analogical, with self-organizing tendencies and parallel distribution. It also holds to the principle that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, so that perception requires investigation of part and whole and their interrelationship, and, unlike science, with the whole getting the most attention.

Overall, Bateson thought that dynamic redundant patterns of perception, rather than direct sensory input, generate patterns of the experienced present. At another moment the circular pattern in experience anticipates, and at this moment (a second time around, or recursively) action is based on an expectation of a future state, through the overlap between a prototype pattern and a test pattern. Here, in between, lies the meaning of ‘difference’ based on expectation of a future state. In his later years, Bateson held firmly to the view that ‘difference’ – and not resemblance – is primary in perception. His position was to understand ‘difference’ as ‘change’ in the ever-shifting ground of informational flux, and not to take difference as an antonym to resemblance, identity or similarity, which would, of course, push the terms ‘difference’ and ‘similarity’ towards a type of dualism.

Another way of putting this is to say that perception enables distinction to be made between pattern and noise. Thus, while recognition of similarity and resemblances occurs with the ordering of pattern, the latter (pattern) has to be distinguished from noise before the ordering of pattern reveals identities and resemblances. ‘Our knowledge is never a knowledge of continuities but always a knowledge of heterogeneities’, Bateson wrote. ‘Homogeneity [sameness] we know nothing about except by extrapolation from perceived difference’ (Bateson, MC. Bk. Mss. 1973). The primary means for discrimination is that of perceptual comparison in the context of comparing changes : thus pattern is associated with learning about contexts and learning with imagination. In any event, difference is something other than that which is to be found in the division or multiplication of identities or resemblances, once order in pattern is uncovered (Bateson, MC Letters ca. 1976, to John Brockman).

His own view was that science had to settle for limitations in its discussion of the capabilities of consciousness, he wrote. Scientific epistemology regards it necessary for consciousness to be explained as an outcome of physical interactions, justifying their beliefs when confirmed by the conjunction, in a physical manner, of explanatory truths, and ‘objective reality’. If there are non-physical attributes, such as ‘unconscious perception’, which yields meanings other than the ‘truths’ of coding, then a physical explanations will no longer have a unique materialist framework. And by ignoring all this evidence about the importance of the unconscious in forming our perceptions, we lose the possibility, the wisdom, of grasping knowledge about ourselves as a whole.

The whole, as he describes in Angels Fear (Bateson and Bateson, 1987), are abstractions that are one level removed from the material and includes differences (‘distinctions’ or ‘indications’) derived from coded transforms which may be imaginary, or may cross boundaries between unconscious self-reference and other recursive features – perceptual and cognitive, cultural, and natural – as all of these build up varieties of contexts. Through the examination of these contexts, what we come to understand are the processes of linking, relating, and connecting the transforms of information. Aesthetics, for example, is one means by which we move to interfaces of these transforms of information in order to capture the pattern of transforms and so enlarge our consciousness. ‘I do not know the whole remedy…’, he wrote, ‘but consciousness can be a little enlarged through the arts, poetry, music and the like. And through natural history. All those sides of life which our industrial civilization tries to mock and push aside’ (Bateson, MC Letters, to Lita Osmundsen 28/71968).

If perception is not passive, as Bateson always maintained, and if sensations are in some ways created by the brain, the external data picked up by the visual or other senses can hardly be the sole data for our perception of the object world. There must also be imagination involved, and memory, yet the processes of perception remain totally unconscious. That is to say, our mental ‘machinery’ – or what we know about it – provides only news of its products of perception. Those products of perception can provide us with a new way of seeing, yet give no news about the processes of perception.

Perceptions of Ecology

In 1962, a year before he left Palo Alto, Rachel Carson published Silent Spring (Carson, 1962). The central themes of this influential scientific study concerned widespread use of pesticides, especially of DDT and the way in which pesticides and herbicides worked their way through plant and insects in the form of bioaccumulation.

Bioaccumulation is a process whereby a toxic substance is absorbed by the body at a rate faster than it is lost, and where biological magnification occurs as the substance increases concentration along a food chain. Bioaccumulation can kill birds, but it can also cause genetic mutations and cancer in humans. The backdrop to Carson’s book was the widespread public concern about radioactive fallout as a result of the above-ground testing of nuclear weapons distributing radioactivity by wind and water upon and into living creatures. Secrecy surrounding the fallout problem had begun to lift in 1954, enabling the scientific community to study the extent of environmental degradation and contamination caused by nuclear weapons tests. In 1957, a Pugwash Conference addressed the control of nuclear weapons, and a 1958 petition to the United Nations, initiated by the Nobel Prize-winning chemist Linus Pauling, called for an end to nuclear weapons testing. Pauling pointed to the myriad biological threats associated with carbon-14 and other human-made radioactive isotopes, such as strontium-90, iodine-31, cesium-137, and carbon-14. Once lodged in all the tissues in the human body, these isotopes become part of its bodily composition. It was at this point that, perhaps for the first time, the public became aware that the whole world’s population of human and non-human animals shared a common environmental fate.

Silent Spring, as Bateson realized, not only raised the issues of nuclear destruction once more, but revealed profound interconnections both within nature and between nature and society – in effect, the interrelatedness of the web of life, or as Bateson expressed it ,‘organism plus environment. The application of modern physics through nuclear research now threatened widespread death and the destruction of the human species. There is little doubt that the close relationship between nuclear testing, nuclear fall-out and the arms race was a prime factor drawing Bateson towards writing about ecology. As mentioned above he had studied the pattern of arms races, and after the war had joined a committee of scientists that sought to understand the effects of nuclear weaponry on military defence strategies and international politics (Bateson 1946a, 1946b), a group that included Robert Oppenheimer, administrative head of the Manhattan Project.

1By 1959 he envisaged an ‘epistemological triad,’ in which learning appears along with genomics and evolution (Bateson, 2000 : 253). Each of these fields of enquiry at that time, were regarded as belonging to very different disciplines, but Bateson saw them as an integrated or holistic field of study of information, communication and perception, and a means through which he himself could derive a broader gestalt. He described ecology as a science still stuck in the physics of energy budgets and fear of mental explanation : ‘But in principle we know where it has to go [i.e. from a near total concern with energy and power inputs/outputs to budgets of information] and anthropology has to go with it’ (Bateson, 1991 : 90). His epistemology would create a double structure, he claimed, with circular learning and with its ‘steps’, first as a characteristic of small level of organization while genomics and evolution follow on with a much larger gestalt. After all, the business of evolution is very much like learning, it is called trial and error,’ he claimed (Bateson, 1991 : 277). He suggested that a revised epistemology would create ‘words that permit us to reach for this wider whole, a holism with a vocabulary of words such as ‘sacred’ and ‘beautiful’ that are indicative of this wider gestalt’.

The world into which we are moving, the world in whose terms we have to think, is a world of patterns and in that world are tautologies and logics which we can use for explaining, for building accurate language and for creating some rigor. It’s not like the language of quantities and such things. It’s a language of patterns, and, for most of us an unfamiliar business. (Bateson, 1991:180)

One of the major difficulties in exploring our relations with ecosystems is to find ways of delving beneath the surface of direct sensory experience of nature in order to include the less immediately visible aspects such as diversity, complexity, species interactions in ecosystems, all of which are part of their natural history. This of course is true of any endeavour of discovery. but ecosystems present special complexities. As Bateson points out, the conjoining patterns of repetition and change that make up biological order, make it difficult for any observer to construct any single point of reference and to rely upon that point of reference in order to appraise unity and interconnection in natural order. Not only are there multiple levels of connection in an ecosystem which have to be taken into account, but no observer is able to step outside an ecosystem and look back at it from above and so achieve some sort of visual look at its unit. How then do scientific observers and artists, who are themselves part of the field that they are observing construct points of reference, or registers ?

He offered an interlinked, two-part solution. The first was a change in our perception. The second was a change in understanding causality in ecological order. His primary ecological message is that what humans do in this world to biological order will, in a circular manner, always come around to stab them in the back. Human populations are always locked in the immanent conditions of their own ecosystems. Humans must become aware of this in systematic terms, in the same manner that many humans believe that they are locked into the immanent conditions of their own spiritual existence. In other words, all ecological science must state unequivocally that scientific procedures of biological order must a) take into account its circular and recursive (i.e. repetitive circular) nature, b) register that systemic changes human beings initiate have global consequences and that c) these will, in turn, alter current conceptions about continuity and discontinuity in ecological order. These total effects of human and non-human mutual causal relations will never be understood solely in quantitative terms.

Bateson knew about the potential for runaway in climate change, having investigated this issue in the mid-1960s and had come to the conclusion that its effects were likely to be much more acute than the ecologists of the time suggested. One argument current during the 1960s which he spent some time examining, was that an increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will be beneficial because it will aid growth of forests ! He records that initially, he accepted the thesis that global warming would be good for the world’s biomes because greater densities of carbon dioxide would promote thicker vegetative cover. Then he realized that such a hypothesis took no account of feedback of global warming and was, therefore, a dangerous misconstruction. He began writing that the scientific world had about twenty years to make this correction about recognizing anthropogenic influence and acting on it or the results of ignoring the correction would be ominous. Yet it was another 20 years before the world scientific community unequivocally recognized global warming, 30 years before the Kyoto Protocol was put forward to world leaders. At the very moment of the ratification of the Kyoto Protocol, the delegates knew that carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere over the last several million years have varied from 200 parts per million at the depths of the ice ages to 270 parts per million during the warming periods between them. And now, in 2020, we have reached more than 417 parts per million, knowing that danger levels begin at 425 parts per million. Even these quantitative terms should make us all be thoroughly alarmed.

Aesthetics as Epistemology

In an epistemological sense, one cannot use the strict tenets of reason in order to destroy reason without implicating oneself in a contradiction in terms. Indeed, Habermas raised this very argument against the tactics of deconstruction used by Jacques Derrida (Currie, 2004 : 123). Nobody understood this lesson better than Gregory Bateson. To employ the tenets of reason to overthrow the universalism of reason is to plunge oneself into the same sort of contradictions found in the Russell paradoxes of logical types. The contradiction could be embraced, at the cost of parody and ironical depiction of ‘reason’ ; but it could only be avoided if one finds a new way to relate particulars with universals. Only a modification of this fundamental relation between parts and whole will modify the universals which the fragmented clarities of rationalism posit as ‘universals’.

All ecological perspectives present a view of the whole through which humanity can understand as the unity of the biosphere. It also introduces the idea of the pattern which connects. An approach through aesthetics is an approach that appreciates and revalues life through the perspective of life and death in the planet and not through the lens of competitive economy. Instead we should be doing our own groping for ‘the patterns which connect’. Matters of beauty are highly formal, very real and crucial to the entire political and ethical system in which we live. Another way of putting this is to say that any creation of the aesthetically monstruous can only be a symptom of cultural pathology. And our primary means for discrimination is that of perceptual comparison in the context of comparing heterogeneous types of change.

A paraphrase of his position would read : We are embodied in large organization and structures, ecosystems that are one step removed from physical structures. I distrust consciousness as a prime guide, because consciousness always seems to refer to immediate solutions, and thence to the lens of the competitive economy. The latter induces loss of the wholeness of being. Both the sacred and beautiful are words that reach for this larger whole. Aesthetics and the sacred offer a contrasting balance to rationalist conceptions of the universal and the particular. Incorporating an aesthetic did not require a return to the mediaeval realm of the sacred, nor uncritical acceptance of any particular spirituality or worldview of peoples either inside or outside major religions. Instead, it fosters the idea that holism, unity and beauty were coincident with each other and should be an integral part of any modern science investigating the game of life. For the sacred is not simply the product of a split between the godly and the worldly, it is the hook up, the total hook up, or Sacred Unity, as Donaldson expressed it in the title of his edited book of Bateson’s essays (Bateson, 1991).

In Angels Fear Bateson establishes a deep connection between perception and cognition through aesthetics and epistemology. He drew the connection in terms of a forked riddle about perception of ‘wellness’ : ‘What is man that he may recognize disease or disruption or ugliness ?’ ‘What is disease or disruption or ugliness that a man may know it ?’ The riddle’s two aspects derive on the one side from perceptual acuity in recognizing a difference between beauty and ugliness, and on the other, an observer’s knowledge of patterns of disease and disruption. At the time, proposing aesthetics and the sacred as markers of ecological unity seemed to be a very abstract argument, with little relation to social activity or social understanding. Today the socio-ecological relationship is much more evident, as for example, in the worldwide attempts to save coral reefs from ongoing destruction. The current condition of many coral reefs is of a human-created destruction of reefs of incredible beauty. First, decimation through human instigation of global heating of the oceans ; second is the additional desecration resulting from dynamiting of reefs to ensure easy retrieval of fish, plus other forms of uncontrolled human pollution such as intensity of plastic pollution in the oceans.

Nevertheless, he warned us that the pattern of the percept does not flow easily into the pattern of cognitive epistemology and numerous tensions lie in the fork between the two. At the outset there are issues of perception stemming from seeming contradictions in perceiving the pattern flow of beauty and ugliness. Next there is the tension between appearance and descriptions of ‘reality’ applied to appearances. All such tensions become a problem of epistemology. Aesthetics is not the simple beauty that our eyes enable us to see, it is, in Blakean mode, that which we see and imagine through our perception. We should therefore look at aesthetics before we look at action. To paraphrase, the gods of ecosystems require us to enlarge our knowing about unity and the sacred, the difference of the aesthetic from the appetitive, the deliberate from the unconscious, and develop topologies, maps, of these interconnected ideas.

The following exchange is indicative (Bateson, 1991 : 300) :

Q. Would it be correct to suggest that the aesthetic is this unifying glimpse that makes us aware of the unity of things which is not in the limited sphere of consciousness ?
G.B. That is right ; that is what I am getting at. The flash which appears in consciousness as a disturbance of consciousness, is the thing that I am talking about.

The Recursive Features of Ecology

Bateson stops at meta-meta relations, of aesthetics and the sacred. An infinite series of meta- dimensions would lead to alternative suppositions transforming ‘the sacred’ into other worldly suppositions. As already noted, Bateson, like his father, was a lifelong atheist and he rejected the belief in the other-worldly-ness of nature. He only wished to speak of a world of pattern and immanent order, and not a god-like world of creation. He insisted that his use of the notion of the sacred referred only to immanent ordering, an ordering of the same class of meta-phenomena as ‘aesthetics ;’ for transcendent mind is fallacious thinking. We should reconstitute our notions of the sacred as representing holistic forms of ordering. As shown below, the sacred, through hook-up, comes through a recursive vision of form which then promotes recall, or re-entry, of origins (Harries-Jones, 1995 : 299-302).

He did make methodological suggestions as to how to proceed. His usual suggestions concerning description are to employ ‘double description’ to ensure we use both analogue as well as digital coding. Analogue coding brings with it the insights of metaphor, stories, parables, along with any other means of comparison to give human support for restoration. Ecological vision, on the other hand, when engaging these meta-levels requires ‘double vision’. The idea of ‘double vision’, he suggests, is congruent with moiré, which is a phenomenon with close affiliation to a holograph. The contrastive effects of moiré resemble holographs in that their contrastive effects appear to be three dimensional, constructed so that complex reflective patterns ensure that some aspect of the whole is reflected in every part. Bateson referred to holograms in order to advance his point that natural events are not only circular, but always reflect a whole in their various levels of form. Despite variation occurring through change, perception of origins of the whole as a unity, its original pattern remains a recursive unity. Thus forest systems become savannah become forest systems depending on the pattern of appropriate rainfall : original patterning may even return to prominence over time.

Biological systems do not connect their parts in any one-to-one, point-to-point manner, as is typical of mechanical systems. The purpose of a hologram is to retain an image of the whole in every part. It is not the technology itself that is of importance, but the forms that the technology uncovers ; and how it is possible to retrieve a ‘double vision’. He refers to ‘scanning the interface’ by which he means gaining insight into the process through which transforms of differences cross boundaries. Then we can better understand the processes of linking, relating and connection among the transforms, he says. Only here at the boundaries and edges does one become aware of second-order transforms of difference and so understand the coupling and conjoining of difference by turning what first appears to be static events of whole-and-parts into insights about change. Bateson’s discussion here has references both to our own biological processes of seeing, and our understanding of connection with other recursive systems, perceptual, cognitive, cultural, and natural. Scanning all interfaces leaves us closer to William Blake’s perception of perception (Harries-Jones, 1995 : 262-265).

This idea about recursion of the systemic whole also appears in Maturana and Varela’s discussion of autopoiesis, or self-producing systems (Maturana and Varela, 1980). It was these scholars who noted that the property of the whole in living forms produces causal trains. They survive by living upon themselves and some survive longer than others. Bateson added to this by noting that recursion is crucial in any autopoietic, or self-organizing system, containing temporal ‘if...then’ links, where the ‘then’ invokes temporal movements of change. .

A primary requirement for any ecosystem is to respond not only to a change in pattern, but take into account in whether change in pattern is coming too fast for an ecosystem to meet change in pattern of repetitions. If unable to meet these changes of pattern in change, ecological change will bring about a less stable state. In this broad issue of ecological change, the notion of learning is also suggestive as a universal feature of animate existence – like habit. Here Bateson turns back to the question of redundancy, that aspect of recurrence which is the most important component of memory and learning. As discussed previously, redundancy enables guesswork to occur about the relationship of part to whole. But another comparison soon appears, one which provides a meta-ordering through a three-term contrast. Here the two prior comparisons, of part and whole, are compared to the environment of the whole as a second-order comparison a part- whole in relation to environment of whole. Time intervals enable such contrasts to appear.

1Recursion is set of loops, distinct from primary feedback, that attend to systemic features and at the meta-meta level thus enabling continuation of the dance of interacting parts – and their temporal network of relations in ecosystems. Although ecological systems do indeed become degraded through loss of organization when their energy budgets are depleted, the systems first become depleted through loss of organization among the components of ecosystems. Breakdown results first from a loss of ability to respond to change rather than loss of energy. These limit events within ecosystems long before the energy budget begins to pinch (Bateson, 2000 : 502-513 ; MC Letters, to Ken Norris1/23/1969).

Thus to understand stability, adaptation, and degradation in ecological systems, it is of primary importance to look at pathways of information and their ‘budgets of flexibility’ ; for degradation is primarily a breakdown in interconnectedness among the total array of their relationships. Breakdown results first from a loss of ability to respond to change, rather than to loss of energy, and so limit events within ecosystems long before the energy budget begins to pinch (Bateson, 2000 : 502-513 ; MC Letters, to Ken Norris1/23/1969).Above all, systemic features are mutual causal. Recursive loops are ‘noise eating’. Initially, correction and restoration can be undertaken by the system itself. Recursive loops reveal any unpredictable feedback that emerges as an aspect of nature entangling itself, so that recall of a larger domain of form can modify any tangle in patterns at the level of ‘parts’ (Harries-Jones. 1995 : 186 ).

Mutualism and Co-Evolution : Replacing the narrative of natural selection

Given circularity and self-organizing systems, it becomes less possible to explain evolution as an outcome of events and their changes rather than being steered by natural selection. For natural selection is a linear temporal concept that does not take circularity or origins into account. Bateson asked his readers to look at evolutionary process as a series of coupled events – more specifically, coupled interactive events. While a Darwinian interpretation of the evolutionary adaptation of ‘horses’ and ‘grass’ explains the adaptation of ‘horse’ and that of ‘grass’ as being the adaptation of individual ‘things’, this description fails to evoke any relation between them. It fails to understand that grass responds to horses’ hooves as much as horses respond to sweeter grass. Instead, in Darwinian explanation of ‘the horse’ and ‘the grass’ are single organisms that become duals involved in a competitive relationship between ‘horses’ and ‘grass’ (Bateson, MC Letters, to Rev. Riyadassa 04/03/1972).

Bateson stresses mutual causality in evolution and offers a definition of co-evolution as a stochastic system of evolutionary change in which two or more species interact in such a way that changes in species A set the stage for the natural selection of changes in species B. Later, changes in species B set the stage for the selecting of more similar changes in species A. (Bateson, 2000 : 227). In other words, all changes in co-evolutionary settings are really moves in the relationship of organism and environment to preserve relationships, and to stabilize relationships through adapting to continual variance within that setting. Co-evolutionary adaptation is always of organism plus environment which is dependent upon two contrasting sets of processes, with one set conserving morphological regularities, and the other facing outward towards the vagaries and demands of the environment. The two sets of processes in a co-evolutionary framework provide contrast with each other in temporal sequences such as adapting to fast variables, and in the way in which slow processes of selection work.

Some biologists have taken Bateson’s ideas of mutualism and co-evolution to mean that he is supporting Jean-Baptiste Lamarck against Darwin. Lamarck’s hypothesis put forward the hypothesis that experience, performance and use of bodily parts creates conditions for evolutionary change. Lamarck famously cited the case of a giraffe developing its long neck through continual stretching in order to gain access to higher stands of leaves on acacia trees. He alleged that this was an example of how variation developed among living organisms – through the ability of parents to endow their immediate offspring with advantages acquired in parental behaviour. The Darwinians always took this as being a clear example of Lamarck not knowing anything about genetics and therefore not knowing what he was talking about. They were correct.

In this respect, Bateson himself had no interest in Lamarck’s argument that the flexibility gained through an organism’s experience is transmitted from parents to their young within a single generation. In fact, he offered a counter-argument to this aspect of the Lamarckist position, arguing that if an inappropriate response in a stressed situation is inherited in the way that Lamarck proposed, then over the long term it may add to, rather than correct, acquired unfavourable conditions encountered in the parental generation. The giraffe’s body, like the human body, is made up of a very large number of variables, which interlock in all sorts of spirals and loops. If error correction consisted of accepting continual short-term adjustments, all Lamarckian heredity might accomplish is to enforce an ever-increasing rigidity. Once organisms start locking themselves into any one circuit of repetitive activity, through genetic inheritance, individual giraffes would end up ‘stressed out’, with no tolerance or flexibility anywhere. The generation whose ‘adaptation’ had accepted one circuit of repetitive activity, which they then would pass on to the next generation, would increase the chances that one spiral of tightening will ipso facto tighten the others, so that eventually such a sequence of adjustments would lock or restrict total system performance. And the eventual result would be a total loss of ability to adapt.

Bateson’s own depiction of natural selection was that of ‘picking out the unfit for non-survival’ (Bateson, MC Bk. Mss. 11/06/64), where the ‘picking out’ refers to a failure to maintain stable relations between the organism and environment while both are undergoing change. When each co-adaptation is defined as being changes in the co-evolutionary circumstances of ‘horses’ and ‘grass’, each change in relationship indicates that in order to preserve the continuity of their relationship with each other, both horses and grass must effect change. This might lead, perhaps, to a re-defined notion of ‘natural selection’. Yet situations can arise in levels of change where if the first failure to change was not successful, another one, at a higher level, would. There is a warning attached to this proposal : inappropriate understanding of co-evolutionary relations compounds errors. The compounding of errors of perception of co-evolutionary change will lead to quicker destruction of environment than if the Darwinian argument had been correct and the coupling had been singular.

Which difference makes a difference in any ecosystem is ‘a threesome business’, he wrote, since each of the differences is a characteristic of being alive. The first aspect to consider is circular causation at several levels, which must therefore include morphogenesis, the generation of form per se. The second term is that of co-learning in adaptation, which would include co-learning between animals and their environment. The third term is that of genetics, which is a memory system, and a much slower temporal variable than the other two. Each draws upon the other recursively as relations of each other. Bateson goes on to argue that the study of co-evolution is a means for unearthing all the processes we call ‘knowing,’ and that in uttering evolutionary theory, the appropriate syntax will consist of subject-predicate sentences in which the subject will always be a relationship and not an individual object (Bateson, MC Bk. Mss. ca. 1973).

Ecological Epistemology as Wellness

Ecology is a global life support system. The ecological philosopher, Arne Naess argued that the most daunting task in environmentalism is to show that the relation of self-to-environment is indeed relational, being neither objective nor subjective but that which is common in a field of relations of humanity and nature. And “that which is common, Naess acknowledges is extremely abstract, completely intangible and in no way obvious” (Naess, 1989 : 47). Gregory Bateson had his own term for Naess’ notion of commonality. He called it the ’pattern which connects’. As we have seen, Bateson extends this idea by using cybernetic modelling of formal properties to get around the issue of ‘intangibility’. The term ‘recursive epistemology’ is a term which gives us meaning about ourselves, in relation to ‘the pattern which connects us to nature’.

Rodney Donaldson entitles the final section of the posthumous book of Bateson’s essays ‘Health, Ethics, Aesthetics and the Sacred’ each an aspect of the title A Sacred Unity (Bateson, Sacred, 1991). This might be a view of a ‘maverick’ in the 1970s but one that, prompted by a combination of the global heating crisis plus the recent pandemic of COVID-19, has suddenly made the public aware of a sharp division ‘economy versus health’ and of choices humanity now has to confront between continuing to support a politico-economic order which is (in Bateson’s words) ‘addicted to the consumption of earth itself’ or, alternatively, to embrace holistic perceptions of ecological order as necessary for all human activity and well-being.

As Bateson points out, it is much easier to talk about holistic matters of living when things are disturbed, going wrong and there is evident pathology, than when systems are healthy. Health is a very difficult subject to discuss and is one of the reasons why there is the notion of the sacred, in the first place, even though the sacred is itself difficult to discuss. Unlike the concepts of individual psychology, health is a systematic feature, and systematic features in total systems of explanation become translated into processes. A system of human health defines phenomenon within the context of all complete circuits which are immanent in the circuitry that are relevant to it, and this circuitry is not completed within the skin but extends to relevant external relationships (Bateson, 1991 : 260). Much of this becomes a daily topic in 2020.

Yet without any register or standard of reference, he said, ecologists are in the same situation as that of a parachutist with no instruments to establish his or her relationship to the ground. The public are in free fall. A reflexive conundrum emerges : the public is constrained by existing patterns of communicative interaction in society, so it is unable to look back at the dilemma from a perspective of the system as a whole. For example, conventional methodology in biology, specifically molecular biology, only looks at parts, and discounts how scientists come to choose that particular ’part’ of a unified order to investigate as content of their investigation.

Without any holistic standard of reference, the public will see their materialistic problems as organism versus environment. Or the public will see their dilemma in dualistic terms – rooted in violations of spirituality. Thus our civilization becomes overwhelmed, thrown into epistemological panic when confronting unity and holism in the biosphere, and does not know how to proceed (Bateson, 1991 : 268, 311). Yet any sort of leap to an ill-considered spiritualism is to leap out of the industrial frying-pan into an ethereal fire (Bateson and Bateson, 1987 : 50-64). The only guide available, so far as Bateson is concerned, is good epistemology ; for this will develop higher perspectives, utilize holistic processes, and reverse mechanistic science continuing dissolution of wholes into parts. Good epistemology will encourage a ‘groping’ for holism and help us correct our culturally predisposed inability to perceive a perspective of the whole, other than transcendent deities.

Six Criteria of Mind in Nature

From Anthropology to Epistemology ends with the following sentences :

[We] knew that ultimately the theory of evolution must become identical with a resolution of the body/mind problem [and put an end to dualism]. Today both evolution and body/mind are linked to epistemology and this last is no longer a branch of philosophy. It has become largely under McCulloch’s leadership, a branch of experimental and observational science (Bateson, 1991 : 90).

The key lay in his definition of information together with his criteria for ‘mind.’ Mind is not a thing, not a substance, but is a process that begins with perception of differences, most particularly, with ‘a difference that makes a difference’. ‘In fact what we mean by information – the elementary unit of information – is a difference that makes a difference. It is able to recognize difference because the neural pathways along which it travels and continually transformed are themselves provided with energy. The pathways are ready to be triggered’ (Bateson, 2000 : 459).

Since the time Bateson introduced this new definition of information, (in January 1970 at a Korzybski Memorial Lecture) it has become more and more acceptable as a formal definition of information. He wrote up his six criteria of mind almost ten years later and expressed their significance in his book, Mind and Nature (Bateson, 1979 : 92).

1. A mind is an aggregate of interacting parts or components
2. The interaction between parts is triggered by differences, and difference is a non-substantial phenomenon both located in space or time ; difference is related to negentropy and entropy rather than to energy.
3. Mental process requires collateral energy
4. Mental process requires circular (or more complex) chains of determination
5. In mental process, the effects of difference are to be regarded as transforms (i.e. coded versions) of events which proceeded them.
6. The description and classification of their processes of transformation disclose a hierarchy of logical types immanent in the phenomena.

To elaborate on these criteria,

Criterion (1) ‘Mind” is a process with interacting components, an aggregate of all movements that can be perceived though whatever abilities are available in interaction to produce a perceptual mapping. So with the case of a frog, as McCulloch pointed out, if events are not in motion, it cannot perceive. Even then, the frog has a limited range of perception.

Criterion (2) implies that all pattern formation is connected to perception, and the two together motivate activity, and create mindful responses. If you can see difference, then you can receive news of outlines. The stuff of knowledge through perceptive process is made from the news of difference. Difference is embodied in interactions and in sense organs of the way that these interactions feel. Difference is quite different from force or impact – for you cannot locate it. Moreover difference only triggers the expenditure of energy – it does not provide energy ; it triggers the end organ. Differences exist in circuits, they also exist in contexts – context is structured so that it enables development of habits – and this pertains to ecosystems. Difference out there precipitates coded or corresponding differences in the aggregate of differentiation, which we call the organism’s mind. And the mind is immanent partly inside the body but also partly outside the body in the form of records, traces and perceptible.

For Bateson there was no difference between perception and ‘making sense’ but the processes of perception were far from faithful replication as we might expect of a photographic event. We have no direct perception of an object, no Ding an sich. In fact we are unable to deal with direct perception. When we discern an individual percept – we only see the product of our perceptual process. My information modes provide me not with the news of its processes but with news of its products. Our epistemology always comes between me and my understanding of myself. Bateson argues that the total unconsciousness of the processes of perception and the how of using our senses is a deeply concealed body of knowledge, concealment that comes between conscious understanding (involving others) and the external world. Though we may be able to derive particular characteristics of how perception influences our interpretation of abstract order, including such characteristics as unity ; beginning-and-end ; intensity dimensions such as duration and violence ; balance ; irreversibility ; precision ; effect ; efficiency All this makes us more sure of the reality of the self (Harries-Jones, 1995 : 204- 206).

That ‘difference is related to negentropy and entropy rather than to energy’ is a statement that seems to overlap with Criterion (3) about collateral energy and also Criterion 5. In living systems there is collateral creation of order which reduces dissipation of energy and, in the bringing of order by living systems, lower rates of thermodynamic energy dissipation which would otherwise occur. This is characteristic of all ‘open’ rather than ‘closed’ gaseous thermodynamic systems. The point here is that all prior explanations of movement, perception, cognition, interaction, motivation, purpose, balance, or other outcomes in both the natural and social sciences in the Western world, are explained in terms of a manifestations of external energy (or other physical notions of external impulse) of ‘closed’ systems. The distinction between the ‘closed’ thermodynamic properties of non-living systems or gasses, and the ‘open’ characteristics of living systems was described by Prigogine (Prigogine and Stengers, 1984). Subsequently all living systems were classed as ‘open’ systems.

Bateson had anticipated re-coding of the ‘energy’ component in the second law of science, and understood that rules of dissipation of energy in living systems are not equivalent to the thermodynamic dissipation of (external) energy in the manner that the second law of thermodynamics states. The grounds for this in Bateson’s argument is that bio-entropy moves from noise to informational pattern, and informational patterns then lower the rate of thermodynamic entropy before thermodynamic entropy eventually dissipates all order into chaos.

Bateson then recodes ‘entropy’ as ‘flexibility’ of variance. The growth of flexibility from noise to pattern in bio-entropy becomes part of the balance in nature until variety in patterns becomes ‘fixed’ or ‘jammed’ in some way or other, and cannot adjust to new circumstances. Norbert Wiener, in a manner of speaking, had given Bateson ‘permission’ to conceptualize the inverse process, namely that of life increasing informational ‘flexibility’ over time until it devolves into fixed pattern, neg-entropy, or jammed patterns, or time binding, even if Wiener’s permission was expressed as ‘metaphor’, and not as ‘science’.

Criterion 2 also says that motivation in the sensing of difference is not specifically a part of particular objects, or substance, but rather concerns interaction movements of living forms which are located in time and space e.g. movements of the fly on the wall in relation to a buzzing wasp. In this sense Criterion (2) relates also to Criterion (5). Note the sensing of difference is ostensive, but always in the form of an occurrence, providing ‘news’ from active inter-relationship. And it is abduction, or guess-work (abduction is a term that comes from the logician C. S. Peirce), that informs us about the significance of a contrast in active inter-relationships.

In Criterion (3), ‘collateral energy’ could be in sound waves or light waves or other types of physical energy necessary for communication. But these events are triggered, note only ‘triggered’, by information about change of patterns as opposed to any fixed patterning in relational ordering. Mind is an exclusive aspect of animate systems where ratios of flexibility effect feedback properties, which, in turn, are related to stability or change of organization.

Criterion (4) : ‘Mental process requires circular (or more complex) chains of determination’ makes Bateson’s approach unique for his time. But what of the circularity of the circular ? What does ‘circular’ imply ? In fact, the use of the term does not necessarily imply strict graphic interpretations of a circle because Bateson himself notes that 360-degree circularity is very rare in nature. On the other hand, mutual causality is a temporal form in nature, and temporal sequencing occurs in several ways, both horizontal and up-down sequences. Think of the topology of a bagel with one circle on the outside edge, another circle on the inside edge, another circle from bottom edge to top edge to bottom edge around the side of the bagel, and a possible circle through the hole in the middle, linking inside with outside. These have names such as annular, meridial, villacreux, with the latter being a pattern of activity enabled by the ‘nothingness’ of the hole in the middle of the bagel. The nothingness permits all these ‘goings on’. A diagram appears in Upside Down Gods (Harries-Jones, 2016 : 191). The diagram is taken from the work of Don McNeil, who has himself adapted it from Warren McCulloch. Another significant concept is that some of the circles may carry different coding, as for example the differences between digital and analogue.

Criterion (5) states the effects of difference are to be regarded as transforms (i.e. coded versions) of events, which preceded them. In other words ‘difference marking’ is a universal process in all living forms (creatura was the term Bateson used) involved in this process of interaction, a difference or resemblance of difference being a continuous process which changes in time through the learning about events and their transforms. Bateson insisted on double coding, that is to say both digital coding as an ordering circle and analogue coding as ‘aboutness’ through processes such as synchronicity and intensity. Such processes permit metaphor, the imaginary, and other semiotic forms of adjustment. A new science, biosemiotics, founded after Bateson’s death, was founded upon this concept of double coding (Hoffmeyer, 2008).

Criterion (6) yields controversy. In one sense, the description and classification of processes of transformation can disclose a hierarchy of logical types immanent in the phenomena. This is simple enough if we take the discussion of ‘learning’ as our guide : there is learning activity, learning context of activity, then learning meta-contexts which group or frame contexts ; then there are meta-meta contexts which are equivalent to changing epistemology. This constitutes a hierarchy of logical types if and when we consider cognition. But if we frame the same series as perceptual changes, as in gestalt changes in perception, they do not resemble ‘logical type changes’ as the mathematician and philosopher, Bertrand Russell, specified them (Russell, 1903).

Bateson introduced the notion of logical types as a type of proposition or classification associated with the variety of levels in communication contexts where differing ‘logical types’ form ‘punctuations’ in perception which seem to be ‘objective’ where patterns of relationship are concerned. ‘As I use “higher logical type (HLT)” the relation is commonly between propositions [of belief] rather than between items, classes, names, etc.’ But propositions of belief may be false if interactive communication is itself is based on falsehood, as the world had recently discovered with the internet.

Each logical type represents a relationship. The communicator perceives that differences in perception make a difference in communication, also that the communicator can alter his or her interpretation of events and that the process or response to response creates a classification of types about such clusters of differences. The presence of discontinuities allows questions and answers about patterning, not only in the sense of inclusion and exclusion, but also in the sense of how different aspects of ‘logical’ types interpenetrate – how they include or type each other. In more formal terms, there are links between the proposition, perception, learning and gestalt, but propositional links about difference or movement or change of some sort must also include a perception of those differences.

Bateson stated in 1976 :

In logical typing we are concerned with differences between differences or differences in how the difference is going to belong. … It is a learning response [in triggering an ‘aha’] to a larger gestalten than you had previously used. That’s it. You suddenly see the larger pattern (Bateson, MC Misc Mss. Dialogue between G.B. and Werner Erhard, 1976).

The fact is that Bateson’s term ‘logical type’ does not really belong to the strict set of rules in philosophy, nor to the self-evident truths of mathematical theorems, nor the truths of formal logic. It refers, increasingly, to ordering relations in perception. Despite this, he used Russell’s approach to give validity to his scheme. Russell held that whenever we are engaged in rigorous argument, we must only include within a given class those items that are within that class of the same level of abstraction, and never include an item of another logical type, or abstraction. His example was that of the difference which lies between a singular person and of a class of people.

Despite its slippery edges, the analogy of logical types that Bateson drew was meaningful to a therapist’s understanding of relationship to behaviours within the family. In therapeutic circumstances therapists could set about ‘mapping’ perception patterns within the family in order to create awareness within the family of how vicious circles are initiated. They can observe family rules about transforms in perception from class to member and member to class, as well as refusal to transform the perturbing patterns setting vicious circles into motion. Therapists could suggest how a change in sequence and patterns of communication could avoid destructive patterns and ‘frozen’ habits of communication.

At a more complex level, such as interactions with or within natural circumstances, the notion of higher logical types (HLT) becomes an issue of sorting out propositions about stochastic interaction in a heterarchy. The non-linear and circular world of communication with many levels, where communicative events return to their point of origin, creates situations where strict reference to a class and its members become displaced. In these circumstances, it is much more difficult to avoid paradoxical communication. Bateson admitted that Russell’s logic does not apply literally and that, in pragmatic circumstances, conversation consistently violates class/member typing (Bateson, 2000 : 189, 203). Nevertheless, if communicators find themselves in a quandary in their communicative relations with other people through breaking Russell’s rule, they soon learn how to break these strict logical strictures without creating social paradox in communicative response.

If this explanation sounds somewhat lame and doubtful, and reveals ‘slippery edges’ of procedures of logical typing (that Bateson himself acknowledged), then Yair Neuman’s recent book puts the whole discussion of ‘logical’ typing on firmer footing. He abandons Russell’s rules of classification and invokes rules of categorization instead. This enables the formation of complex, polydimensional groupings of ‘difference’ following the rules of category theory to form networks of ‘difference.’ In effect, categorical typing is more flexible than logical typing (Neuman, 2018).

Groping for Holism

We should resist seizing upon concrete fragments of the larger unity that we call a biosphere and assume that the names we give them somehow are real components of a concrete structure. Instead, all action in a circular and recursive systems, like those in the biosphere, lies at the interface of sub-systems, the edges or the boundaries between subsystems – where both gaps and interconnections occur. Here ‘difference’ is to be found at the interface of sub-systems and only here can the pattern of differences – together with any changes in this pattern – be perceived (Harries-Jones, 1995 : 232). Here too aesthetic notions which render intimate appreciation of form, shape, pattern in nature present perception of parts organized in relation to wholes. Without reversing the current framing of part-whole relations we will be unable to have an imaginative response to our own agency, nor would we be able to make comparisons. And without holistic comparison, that is reflecting on our abstractions of part-whole relations, we would scarcely be able to undertake scientific observation at all. Yet Bateson never managed to depict a unitary circuit of that which he termed his ‘triad’, namely genome, organism, learning and environment – which in Bateson’s case would also have been linked to mutual causality in co-evolution.

He did leave a guide as to which labels should be used in such an undertaking. His major rule is that all labels about the process are rules of relationship and second, that all couplings of relationship bear no representation to any physical object whatsoever. During Bateson’s life biology had barely begun to appreciate the importance of information and communication linking form to process. It is hard to believe that until the mid-1970s biological science treated the genome as material substance. The AIDS epidemic helped change that supposition. Today major difficulties still remain. If there were a depiction of circular information flow in living systems, it would be ‘the closest thing we might have to a biological law’, but ‘the circular flow of biological information has been chalked out conceptually’, according to biologist Siddartha Mukherjee (Mukherjee, 2016 : 410).

The pattern of Mukherjee’s circular presentation shows that the upper arc has communicative-type interaction, but the bottom arc reveals open-ended sequences of morphological or ‘formative’ relationship. The notion of ‘form’ here is not discussed in terms of temporal relationships as Bateson has done, nor is ‘form specifically related to Information’. In other words Mukherjee’s presentation fails to deal with where and how transforms required to match ‘form’ to information when communication occurs.

Mukherjee and Bateson both exclude specific examination of plants in these circles/cycles. Shortly after Bateson’s death his view would probably have changed as a result of valued evidence that communication was definitely present in tree interactions with animals that were endangering them. Specifically, acacia trees suffer an overeating of their leaves by kudu (a type of antelope resident in Africa and in this case South Africa), and the trees raise their own tannin levels to high concentrations where it becomes poisonous. At the same time they raise the amount of ethylene in their leaves. This compound acts as a signal to other acacia trees that an herbivore is grazing. Other trees up to fifty metres downwind are able to sense the ethylene warning and these non-foraged trees then step up their own production of tannin before any leaf damage is done to them (van Hoven, Wouter. 1991 : 141-145, Harries-Jones, 1995 : 205).

The following table, entitled Epistemology, marks the beginning of a register for ‘groping’ holistic process. It arises from letters between Gregory Bateson and Anthony Wilden (MC Letters, Wilden to Bateson 21/10/1969) and includes my own extractions from one Wilden article on context theory (Wilden, 1985). Wilden says that this table should not be read as either/or dichotomies, or as binary oppositions. It is of epistemological differences, and of abductive differences drawn between the materialist bed of matter/energy relations and the contextual epistemology of mind/information.

Note that the matter-energy perspective is not only materialist but reductionist in that it always reduces qualities to quantities, and reduces complexity to simplicity. The second column, as Wilden points out, is the basic vocabulary used to gain a perspective on information in cybernetic, ecological, and ecosystemic order (Wilden, 1987, 314–317). It is the language of pattern. Wilden says that this table should not be read as either/or dichotomies, or as binary oppositions. It is of epistemological differences, and of abductive differences drawn between the materialist bed of matter/energy relations and the contextual epistemology of mind/information. He argues that the traditional matter-energy perspective (first column, column A ) is neither rejected nor refuted by the second column (Column A plus B). Instead the mind/information column should be seen as code - duality, both analogue and digital, as an alternative to the characteristics of the matter/energy column, (Column A) which renders ‘a single vision’ - i.e. based upon digitized information only - and transduces the ’single vision ’ into code-duality. Epistemological changes to take note of are that while matter-energy relations are described and analysed in linear arrays, arranged in an apparent linear ladder of levels, mind/information relations have feedback information which is non-linear, circular and recursive. The shape of matter-energy systems has few or no levels, and is a flat-land, or ‘level playing field.’ Matter-energy relations are reversible, while informational relations are irreversible. Another noticeable difference is that information is continually created and destroyed, while matter and energy are conserved around stability points.


Mary Catherine Bateson reports that in the last week of Bateson’s life there was a continuing vigil at the Zen-Jung centre outside San Francisco where he was being treated. And when it was all over members of the vigil placed a book of William Blakes’s poetry beside his body. This gesture honoured the writing of William Blake as a general feature of Bateson’s epistemological approach to contextuality of information.

Blake provided Bateson with an armory of illustrative materials - anecdotes, stories, poetic metaphors which he could use to engage alternative visions of order of nature, of aesthetics, of pattern and coherence and of morality in community and self-realization. In Blake’s ‘Songs of Innocence’, for example, the modes of experience in poem after poem is centred on the nature of ‘play.’ Play is something other than frivolity, and Blake is able to portray the process through which this mode of experience comes about. He notes how loving interaction constructs this world of play. He shows how the forms of the dances of children play, and their circularity gives children a quality of mutuality and trust. In effect, Blake shows play to be one of the vital illusions by which we, as adults, live. Mode of play produces its own order, and order owes nothing to instrumentality ; yet this order is sufficiently resilient to survive chaos and aggression.

Bateson grasps that the ‘real’ in Blake’s writing is not immediately given to the senses, but is a synthesis of the relation between sense-data and imaginative apprehension. His poetry aimed to change his readers’ perception of themselves in their surround. This gives rise to a ‘double vision’ of sense-certainty and imaginative vision. In any event Blake’s ‘double aspect’ is tied into pragmatic contexts of daily activity. He attempted to create an imaginary which is true to the ‘reality’ of the everyday world in order to provide an alternative to conventional ways of seeing and thinking.

Beyond this Bateson’s own objections to ‘rationality’ stemmed from his experiences in the Second World War. He strongly believed that science had joined with the military-industrial complex to devise, and then improve upon, nuclear technology - so fostering evident threats to dissolution of human life on earth through use of nuclear weapons. For Bateson the joining of science with the military-industrial complex was a deceit which destroyed science’s stated aims, which was a search for truth.

In later years Bateson would ask himself the question : ‘What is there about our way of perceiving, that makes us not see the delicate interdependencies in the ecological system, that give it its integrity. We don’t see them and therefore we break them.’ He suggests that there may be a failure of perception because of perception deficit brought about by human beings not living long enough to be able to appreciate with their own eyes the complexity or the effects of change in ecosystems.

Blakean sympathies also encouraged Bateson to struggle with the dominance of consciousness in philosophy and science in the western world. In Bateson’s view, the contents of the screen of consciousness are determined by immediate purpose which forestall coupling between humanity and the homeostasis of the systems around it. Faced with changing variables, humanity seems to prefer changing the systemic surround, to suit itself, rather than changing its relationships to the surround, even to the extent of changing the environment of humanity’s symbionts. Moreover, systemic rates of change rapidly increase with intrusion of technological advances (Bateson, 2000 : 450-452). In another passage : ‘Conscious purpose is now empowered to upset the balances of the body, of society, and of the biological world around us. A pathology - a loss of balance - is threatened by more and more industrial technology, including the increase in mode of communication. Humanity must relax its arrogance in favor of a creative experience in which his conscious model plays only a small part (Bateson 2000 : 440, 444).

‘Any issue about lack of perception must also take another information factor into account.’ The receiver of news of perceptions must maintain a requisite degree of trust in the circumstances of communication in order to accept that information is reported in good faith. Information about ecological balance was new news during Bateson’s lifetime. Yet, even before Bateson’s death, scientific discussions on the dangerous possibilities of climate change began to face a counter-array of supposed ‘facts.’ There was a stream of ‘fake news’ supporting climate change denial. It was orchestrated to ensure that the public would not automatically support scientific decisions about climate change (Harries-Jones, 2016). By 1988, the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) became the central body producing scientific reports on climate change. Yet the global public still declared its uncertainty and maintained doubts about the scientific consensus. The success of ‘fake news’ was a cruel twist of fate - given Bateson’s own role creating ‘fake news’ about Japanese military activity during the latter part of the second world war. Anthropology itself, despite visible changes in climate in the many cultures it reported upon, hesitated about addressing the subject of climate change until the 1990s (Harries-Jones, 1993).

Finally, global science itself made a tragic mistake in its estimates of the rapidity of climate change. Instead of acknowledging the possibilities of non-linear feedback - conditions that would contribute to runaway in the whole dynamic of change, the IPCC approached all its quantitative evidence on the ‘rational’ assumptions of changes occurring in a linear manner over many years. They avoided discussion of the dangers of feed-forward and ignored the wealth of examples of feedback and feed-forward available to them from cybernetics. All their reports, up to and including Fifth Report concerned linear adaptations. The IPCC kept non-linear ‘tipping points’ that might occur out of its calculations (Harries-Jones 2013). By 2018, the conditions of melting ice in the Arctic forced the IPCC to revise its approach. It suddenly moved its topics about climate change to ‘climate crisis’ and from ‘sustainability’ to possibilities of ‘extinction’. Preliminary articles prepared for the Sixth Report address extinction - certainly of biodiversity, and loss of species in animals, plants, birds, and insect populations. Will the IPPC now address, as some non-governmental organization have done already, the prospects for loss of human population ?

Epistemology : ‘Groping’ Holistic Process

References Cited

The References Cited Section is arranged as follows :

A. Published Work by Gregory Bateson, including joint authorship

B. Other Cited Publications.

C. Unpublished Sources from :
(1) The Library of Congress (LOC) in the Margaret Mead Collection 1920-1947 (2) The Gregory Bateson Archive in the Special Collections of the McHenry Library (MC) of the University of California, Santa Cruz.

In all instances the following citations are arranged from earliest date to latest date.

A. Published Work by Gregory Bateson, including joint authorship.

Bateson, G., 1936. Naven : A Survey of Problems suggested by a Composite Picture of the Culture of a New Guinea Tribe drawn from Three Points of View. Cambridge (UK) : Cambridge University Press.

Bateson, G., 1942. Dance and Trance in Bali (ethnographic film).

Bateson, G. 1946a. The Pattern of an Armaments Race – An Anthropological Approach a. Part I. Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 2 nos (5-6) : 10-11.

Bateson, G. 1946b. ‘The Pattern of an Armaments Race – An Anthropological Approach’ b. Part II Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 2 nos (7-8) : 26-28.

Bateson, G., 1961. Ed. Perceval’s Narrative : A Patient’s Account of his Psychosis 1830-32 by John Perceval. Stanford : Stanford University Press.

Bateson, G., 1956. The Message “This is Play.” Ed. Bertram Schaffner. Group Processes : Transactions of the Second Conference. Princeton, NJ.

Bateson, G., 1968. ‘Redundancy and Coding’ in Sebeok, T. Ed. Animal Communication : Techniques of Study and Results of Research. Bloomington : Indiana University Press.

Bateson, G., 1979. Mind and Nature : A Necessary Unity. New York : E. P. Dutton.

Bateson, G., 1991. Rodney Donaldson (Ed.) Sacred Unity : Further Steps to an Ecology of Mind, New York : Harper Collins.

Bateson, G., [1972] 2000. Steps to an Ecology of Mind. Chicago and London : University of Chicago Press.

Bateson, Gregory and Margaret Mead, 1942. Balinese Character : a Photographic Analysis, Special Publications of the New York Academy of Sciences, Volume 2.

Bateson, Gregory and Margaret Mead, 1976. ‘For God’s Sake, Margaret.’ Conversation with Gregory Bateson and Margaret Mead (on the use of the camera in anthropology)’. Ed. Stewart Brand. CoEvolution Quarterly no 10 (summer) : 32-34.

Bateson, Gregory and Mary Catherine Bateson, 1987. Where Angels Fear to Tread : Towards an Epistemology of the Sacred. New York : Macmillan [published posthumously].

Ruesch, Jurgen and Gregory Bateson, [1951] 1967. Communication : The Social Matrix of Society. New York : Norton.

B. (1) Other Cited Publications

Ashby, Ross, 1960. Design for a Brain. 2d. ed. New York : Wiley.

Barnard, Alan and Jonathan Spencer, 1996. Encyclopaedia of social and cultural anthropology. London and New York : Routledge.

Belo, Jane. 1970. Traditional Balinese Culture : Essays. New York : Columbia University Press.

Benedict, Ruth, 1934. Patterns of Culture. Boston, Mass. Houghton Mifflin.

Carson, Rachel, 1962. Silent Spring. New York : Houghton Mifflin.

Currie, Mark, 2004. Difference. London and New York : Routledge.

Gregory, Richard L., Ed., 1987. The Oxford Companion to Mind. Oxford : Oxford University Press : 610

Harries-Jones, Peter, 1993. ‘Between Science and Shamanism : the advocacy of environmentalism in Toronto.’ In Kay Milton, Ed., Environmentalism : the view from anthropology. London and New York : Routledge. ASA Monographs 32.

Harries-Jones, Peter, 1995. A Recursive Vision : Ecological Understanding and Gregory Bateson. Toronto : Toronto University Press.

Harries-Jones, Peter, 1998. ‘Double Bind’ in Paul Bouissac, Ed., Encyclopedia of Semiotics, New York and Oxford : Oxford University Press : 201-203.

1Harries-Jones, Peter, 2013. ‘Feedback and the Voice of Sanity”, In video recording of a Social Anthropology Department conference, “Overheating : the Bateson Symposium in Oslo” (Sept 12, 2013). Edited version (on Video, October 15, 2018) : “The late arrival of Tipping Points (in climate Change)” :

Harries-Jones, Peter, 2016. Upside-Down Gods : Gregory Bateson’s World of Difference. New York : Fordham University Press.

Hoffmeyer, Jesper, 2008. (Ed.) A Legacy for Living Systems : Gregory Bateson as Precursor to Biosemiotics. Dordrecht, Springer Science and Media.

Hoffmeyer, Jesper, 2008. Biosemiotics : An Examination into the Signs of Life and the Life of Signs. Scranton PA. University of Scranton Press.

Kuper, Adam and Jessica Kuper, 1985. The Social Science Encyclopedia. London : Routledge Kegan Paul.

Laing, R. D., 1961. Self and Others. Harmondsworth : Penguin Books.

Lipset, David, 1980. Gregory Bateson : The Legacy of a Scientist. Englewood Cliffs, NJ. Prentice Hall.

Low, P., 2012. The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness (

Maturana, Humberto, and Francisco J. Varela, 1970. Autopoeisis and Cognition : the Realization of the Living. Boston : Reidel.

McCulloch, Warren S., 1965. Embodiments of Mind. Cambridge, Mass. : MIT Press.

Mead, Margaret, 1968. ‘The Cybernetics of Cybernetics’ In Heinz von Foerster, Ed. The Cybernetics of Cybernetics in Purposive Systems : Spartan Books.

Mitchell, J. Clyde, 1969. Ed. Social Networks in Urban Situations. Manchester : Manchester University Press.

Moreno, Jacob, 1934. Who Shall Survive ? Foundations of Sociometry, Group Psychotherapy and Sociodrama. New York : Beacon House.

Mukherjee, Siddhartha, 2016. The Gene. London : Penguin Random House.

Naess, Arne, 1989. Ecology, Community and Lifestyle. Ed. and trans. David Rothenberg. Cambridge : Cambridge University Press.

Neuman, Yair, 2018. The Mathematical Structures of Natural Intelligence. Dordrecht :

Perrow, Charles, 1967. “A Framework for the Comparative Analysis of Organizations.” American Sociology Review, 32 : 194–208.

Prigogine, Ilya and Isabelle Stengers. 1984. Order out of Chaos : Man’s New Dialogue with Nature. Bantam Books.

Richardson, L. F., 1960. ‘Statistics of Deadly Quarrels.’ Journal of the Royal Statistical Society, 112 : 446-458. Pacific Grove.

Russell, Bertrand, [1903] 1960. The Principles of Mathematics. Cambridge : Cambridge University Press.

Stark, D, 2011. The Sense of Dissonance. Accounts of Work in Economic Life. Princeton : Princeton University Press.

Van Hoven, Wouter, 1991. ‘Mortalities in Kudu (Tragelaphus strepsiceros) Populations Related to Chemical Defence in Trees.’ Journal of African Zoology. 105 : 141-145/ Preliminary Report ‘Acacia Trees Kill Antelope in the Transvaal.’ Scientific American 263 / December 1990.

Von Goldhammer, E. and Paul, J, 2007. ‘The Logical Categories of Learning and Communication Reconsidered from a Polycontextural Point of View.’ Kybernetes 7/8 : 1000-1011.

Wilden, Anthony, 1985. ‘Context Theory : the New Science.’ RSSI : Recherches Semiotique : Semiotic Inquiry. 5/2 : 97-116.

Wilden, Anthony, 1987. The Rules are No Game : the Strategy of Communication. New York : Routledge Kegan Paul.

Winkin, Yves, [1996] 2001. Anthropologie de la Communication : De la théorie au terrain. De Boeck Université : Editions du Seuil.

B. (2) Other Publications Recommended

Bateson, Mary Catherine, [1984] 2001. With a Daughter’s Eye : A Memoir of Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson. New York : Harper Collins.

Bateson, Mary Catherine, [1972] 2004. Our Own Metaphor : A Personal Account of a Conference on the Deffects of Conscious Purpose on Human Adaptation. Cresskill, N.J : Hampton Press.

Bateson, Nora, 2011. An Ecology of Mind : A Daughter’s Portrait of Gregory Bateson. Videotape. Bullfrog Films.

Brockman, John, 1977. Ed. About Bateson. New York : E.P. Dutton.

Wilder-Mott, Carol and John H. Weakland, 1981. Eds. Rigor and Imagination Essays from the Legacy of Gregory Bateson. Chicago : The University of Chicago Press.

C. Unpublished Articles, and Book Manuscripts and Letters

C (1) (MC). The Gregory Bateson Archive in the Special Collection section of the McHenry Library of the University of California, Santa Cruz.

C (2) (LOC). Unpublished Letters from the Margaret Mead Collection in the Library of Congress (LOC) 1920-1947.

(MC) C (1a). Covers the Following :

Bk. Mss. Book Manuscripts ca. 1950-80 ; CAF Complete Articles File ;

Misc. Mss. Miscellaneous Manuscripts ;. Notebooks and Loose Notes, Audiotapes and Films,

(MC) C (1b). Unpublished Letters from and to Gregory Bateson (1939-1980).

(MC) C (1a)

Bateson, G. Bk. Mss., Box 5. Review of Ms. for Evolution 11/06/64. 463-4b.

Bateson, G. ‘Foreward’ (unpublished) 11/15//1965. 1024-3g.

Bateson, G. Foreward to Communication : The Social Matrix of Society) 20/06/67. 1241-10c.

Bateson, G. Bk. Mss., Box 5. ‘A Way of Seeing’ in ‘What Every Schoolboy Knows.’1973. 204.24.

Bateson, G. Bk. Mss., Box 5, Forward to ‘The Evolutionary Idea.’ (Outline for John Brockman ca. 1973) 204.13.

Bateson G. Misc.Mss. Dialogue between G.B. and Werner Erhard, 09/03/1976 and 09/06/1976.

Bateson, G. ‘Four Lectures’ (Complete Articles File- unpublished ), CAF # 126.

(MC) C (1b) Unpublished Letters MC Special Collections, Mc Henry Library, University of Santa Cruz, California

MC Letters, Bateson to Warren McCulloch 3/26/ or 7/01/1946, 931- 2 or 931-4.

MC Letters, Bateson to Warren McCulloch 11/15/1965, 1024-3g.

MC Letters, Bateson to John Lilly 17/07/1967, 1096-27.

MC Letters, Bateson to Lita Osmundsen 28/7/1968, 1056.

MC Letters, Bateson to Ken Norris 1/23/1969, 1019-63.

MC Letters, Anthony Wilden to Bateson 10/ 21/1969. 1497-7.

MC Letters, Bateson to Rev. Riyadassa 04/03/1972, 1209-11.

MC Letters, Bateson to Edmund Leach 15/03/ 1973, 824-2.

MC Letters, Bateson to John Brockman ca. 1976, 955-36a.

C (2). Unpublished Correspondence from the Margaret Mead Collection in the Library of Congress (LOC), 1920-1947

LOC General Correspondence, Bateson to F. C. Bartlett 2/5/1936.

LOC General Correspondence, Bateson to F. C. Bartlett, 12/1/1937.

LOC General Correspondence, Bateson to John Henry Hutton 20/08/1946.

LOC General Correspondence, Bateson to A. R. Radcliffe–Brown 21/08/1946.