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The Guardian on Bateson

14 September, 2008

Saturday’s Guardian UK profiles Gregory Bateson and his views on art, mental illness, and whether anthropology should be an interventionist science:

The curious nature of Bateson’s “epistemological” approach was that it prevented him from proposing remedies to the problems he identified. His thinking contained a kind of catch-22: the conscious mind, his own included, was of its nature incapable of grasping the vast system of which it was only a very small and far from representative part; hence any major intervention to “solve” a given problem would always be ill-informed and inadvisable. The only possible solution would be a radical change in our way of thinking, or even our way of knowing, a new (or ancient) mindset in which conscious purpose would be viewed as only a minor and rather suspect part of mental life.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. 15 September, 2008 4:04 am

    I disagree with the quoted section, which says that Bateson’s epistemological approach make it impossible to propose solutions to the problems. I think, rather, he provided a new, more reasonable way of understanding the processes of change and how actual, effective change can be sought.
    Certainly, the mind is only a small part of any larger system that we would want to change, and it’s true that, as a result of this, mind cannot conceive of the system as a whole. However, we can still have an impact, and an effective one, if we alter the way we thing about change from a teleological model to a stochastic one. This requires keeping our organizational structures open and flexible and offering a variety of solutions which would effectively deal with the problems we face. In other words, while we can’t envision the final outcome and push toward that, we can create greater potentiality which will make a better future possible.
    I’ve got a post on my own blog about some of Bateson’s key ideas here. I’m still learning, but I think he’s one of the most powerful thinkers in recent decades, and it’s a shame that he’s so misunderstood that his theories go unnoticed and untested.

  2. gregdowney permalink
    19 September, 2008 6:22 pm

    Thanks Lisa for posting this piece. I’m not sure I agree with the author’s interpretation of Bateson’s work, but I did really appreciate the background on his life and trajectory into anthropology. When I was a grad student, I read both Naven and Steps to an Ecology of Mind, and was deeply impressed. I still feel like Naven was one of the best cultural analyses of that generation and have frequently thought that I should crack open Steps again to see if I read it in a different light now that I have become more interested in holistic anthropology, ethology, biology, ecology and the like.

    In his work though, I feel like Bateson has not aged well. I especially find it interesting how the dominant models of his day — powerful metaphors like the organism in equilibrium and the cybernetic system — have limited the longevity of his work. His thought was extremely idiosyncratic and insightful, but the shelf-life of some of his metaphors, and the limits that they imposed upon his theoretical imagination, are also pretty plain. He’s both inspiration (for his wide ranging intellect) and cautionary tale, in a sense.

    I do agree with Jeremy, however. It’s a shame that Bateson isn’t more widely read. He’s one of those distinctive thinkers, and I’ve always found that confronting his work is a bit of a knock in the head: so much of what we read in contemporary theory is permutations on the same basic terms. Nice to find someone operating with a completely different set of concepts and with such an aesthetically rich vision.


  1. Around the Web | Savage Minds

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