Gregory Bateson

English anthropologist, social scientist, linguist, visual anthropologist, semiotician and cyberneticist (1904-1980)

Gregory Bateson (May 9, 1904July 4, 1980) was a British anthropologist, social scientist, linguist, visual anthropologist, semiotician and cyberneticist whose work intersected that of many other fields. He was married to Margaret Mead.

Quotes edit

  • Whenever we pride ourselves upon finding a newer, stricter way of thought or exposition; whenever we start insisting too hard upon "operationalism" or symbolic logic or any other of these very essential systems of tramlines, we lose something of the ability to think new thoughts. And equally, of course, whenever we rebel against the sterile rigidity of formal thought and exposition and let our ideas run wild, we likewise lose. As I see it, the advances in scientific thought come from a combination of loose and strict thinking, and this combination is the most precious tool of science.
    • Gregory Bateson (1935) "Culture Contact and Schismogenesis" in: Man, Vol. 35 (Dec., 1935), pp. 178-183. Republished in: Steps to an Ecology of Mind (1972, p. 75)
  • If it were possible adequately to present the whole of a culture, stressing every aspect exactly as appears in the culture itself, no single detail would appear bizarre or strange or arbitrary to the reader, but rather the details would all appear natural and reasonable as they do to the natives who have lived all their lives within the culture.
    • Gregory Bateson (1936) Naven: A Survey of the Problems Suggested by a Composite Picture p. 1
  • Earlier fundamental work of Whitehead, Russell, Wittgenstein, Carnap, Whorf, etc., as well as my own attempt to use this earlier thinking as an epistemological base for psychiatric theory, led to a series of generalizations: That human verbal communication can operate and always does operate at many contrasting levels of abstraction. These range in two directions from the seemingly simple denotative level (“The cat is on the mat”). One range or set of these more abstract levels includes those explicit or implicit messages where the subject of discourse is the language. We will call these metalinguistic (for example, “The verbal sound ‘cat’ stands for any member of such and such class of objects”, or “The word, ‘cat’ has no fur and cannot scratch”). The other set of levels of abstraction we will call metacommunicative (e.g., “My telling you where to find the cat was friendly”, or “This is play”). In these, the subject of discourse is the relationship between the speakers. It will be noted that the vast majority of both metalinguistic and metacommunicative messages remain implicit; and also that, especially in the psychiatric interview, there occurs a further class of implicit messages about how metacommunicative messages of friendship and hostility are to be interpreted.
  • Schizophrenia--its nature, etiology, and the kind of therapy to use for it--remains one of the most puzzling of the mental illnesses. The theory of schizophrenia presented here is based on communications analysis, and specifically on the Theory of Logical Types. From this theory and from observations of schizophrenic patients is derived a description, and the necessary conditions for, a situation called the "double bind"--a situation in which no matter what a person does, he "can't win." It is hypothesized that a person caught in the double bind may develop schizophrenic symptoms.
  • Numbers are the product of counting. Quantities are the product of measurement. This means that numbers can conceivably be accurate because there is a discontinuity between each integer and the next. Between two and three there is a jump. In the case of quantity there is no such jump, and because jump is missing in the world of quantity it is impossible for any quantity to be exact. You can have exactly three tomatoes. You can never have exactly three gallons of water. Always quantity is approximate.
  • Perhaps the attempt to achieve grace by identification with the animals was the most sensitive thing which was tried in the whole bloody history of religion.
    • Attributed to Bateson (1980) in: David N. Perkins, Jack Lochhead, John Christopher Bishop (1987) Thinking: The Second International Conference. Vol 2, p. .124
  • Women watched for the spectacular performances of the men, and there can be no reasonable doubt that the presence of an audience is a very important factor in shaping the men's behavior. In fact, it is probable that the men are more exhibitionistic because the women admire their performances. Conversely, there can be no doubt that the spectacular behavior is a stimulus which summons the audience together, promoting in the women the appropriate behavior.
    • Bateson as cited in: David Lipset (1982) Gregory Bateson: the legacy of a scientist. p. 143

Communication: The Social Matrix of Psychiatry, 1951 edit

Jurgen Ruesch and Gregory Bateson (1951). Communication: The Social Matrix of Psychiatry.

  • The concept of communication includes all of those processes by which people influence one another... This definition is based on the premise that all actions and events have communicative aspects, as soon as they are perceived by a human being; it implies, furthermore, that such perception changes the information which an individual processes and therefor influences him.
    • p. 6 as cited in: Stewart L. Tubbs, Robert M. Carter (1978) Shared Experiences in Human Communication. p. 1
  • In order to proceed with abstraction, the organism must be exposed to a sufficient number of events which contain the same factors. Only then is a person equipped to cope with the most frequent happenings that he may encounter.
    • p. 7
  • Things have to be done fast in America, and therefore therapy has to be brief.
    • p. 148 as cited in: C.H. Patterson (1958) "Two approaches to human relations". in: American Journal of Psychotherapy. Vol 7.
  • Our initial sensory data are always "first derivatives," statements about differences which exist among external objects or statements about changes which occur either in them or in our relationship to them. Objects and circumstances which remain absolutely constant relative to the observer, unchanged either by his own movement or by external events, are in general difficult and perhaps always impossible to perceive. What we perceive easily is difference and change — and difference is a relationship.
    • p. 173
  • We can never be quite clear whether we are referring to the world as it is or to the world as we see it.
    • p. 238 cited in: William Rasch, Cary Wolfe (2000) Observing Complexity: Systems Theory and Postmodernity. p. 36
  • The change toward larger Gestalten and the necessity of this change for both humanistic and formal reasons can be illustrated by considering Sullivan's emphasis upon the phenomena of interaction. This emphasis is very clearly part of a defense of man against the older, more mechanistic thinking which saw him so heavily determined by his internal psychological structure that he could easily be manipulated by pressing the appropriate buttons — a doctrine which made the therapeutic interview into a one-way process with the patient in a relatively passive role. The Sullivanian doctrine places the therapeutic interview on a human level, defining it as a significant meeting between two human beings. The role of the therapist is no longer to be dehumanized in terms of definable purposes which he can plan, and the role of the patient is no longer dehumanized into that of an object of manipulation"

Steps to an Ecology of Mind (1972) edit

Gregory Bateson (1972) [:w:Steps to an Ecology of Mind|Steps to an Ecology of Mind: Collected Essays in Anthropology, Psychiatry, Evolution, and Epistemology]

  • No organism can afford to be conscious of matters with which it could deal at unconscious levels. Broadly, we can afford to sink those sorts of knowledge which continue to be true regardless of changes in the environment, but we must maintain in an accessible place all those controls of behavior which must be modified for every instance. The economics of the system, in fact, pushes organisms toward sinking into the unconscious those generalities of relationship which remain permanently true and toward keeping within the conscious the pragmatic of particular instances.
  • The necessary ingredients for a double bind situation, as we see it, are:
    1. . Two or more persons.
    2. . Repeated experience.
    3. . A primary negative injunction. This may have either of two forms: (a) "Do not do so and so, or I will punish you", or (b) "If you do not do so and so, I will punish you". Here we select a context of learning based on avoidance of punishment rather than a context of reward seeking.
    4. . A secondary injunction conflicting with the first at a more abstract level, and like the first enforced by punishments or signals which threaten survival... Verbalization of the secondary injunction may, there-fore, include a wide variety of forms; for example, "Do not see this as punishment"; "Do not see me as the punishing agent"; "Do not submit to my prohibitions"; and so on.
    5. . A tertiary negative injunction prohibiting the victim from escaping from the field.
  • The playful nip denotes the bite, but it does not denote what would be denoted by the bite.
    • From Part 4, section 2: A Theory of Play and Fantasy
  • Finally, in the dim region where art, magic, and religion meet and overlap, human beings have evolved the “metaphor that is meant,” the flag which men will die to save, and the sacrament that is felt to be more than “an outward and visible sign, given unto us.” Here we can recognize an attempt to deny the difference between map and territory, and to get back to the absolute innocence of communication by means of pure mood-signs.
    • From Part 4, section 2: A Theory of Play and Fantasy
  • If a man achieves or suffers change in premises which are deeply embedded in his mind, he will surely find that the results of that change will ramify throughout his whole universe.
    • p. 336
  • What we mean by information — the elementary unit of information — is a difference which makes a difference, and it is able to make a difference because the neural pathways along which it travels and is continually transformed are themselves provided with energy. The pathways are ready to be triggered. We may even say that the question is already implicit in them.
  • We are most of us governed by epistemologies that we know to be wrong
    • p. 461
  • the distribution of flexibility among the many variables of a system is a matter of very great importance. The healthy system ... may be compared to an acrobat on a high wire. To maintain the ongoing truth of his basic premise (“I am on the wire”), he must be free to move from one position of instability to another, i.e., certain variables such as the position of his arms and the rate of movement of his arms must have great flexibility, which he uses to maintain the stability of other more fundamental and general characteristics. If his arms are fixed or paralyzed (isolated from communication), he must fall.
    • 7.4 Ecology and Flexibility in Urban Civilization
  • But the myth of power is, of course, a very powerful myth, and probably most people in this world more or less believe in it. It is a myth, which, if everybody believes in it, becomes to that extent self-validating. But it is still epistemological lunacy and leads inevitably to various sorts of disaster.
    • p. 486
  • What is true is that the idea of power corrupts. Power corrupts most rapidly those who believe in it, and it is they who will want it most. Obviously, our democratic system tends to give power to those who hunger for it and gives every opportunity to those who don’t want power to avoid getting it. Not a very satisfactory arrangement if power corrupts those who believe in it and want it.
    • p. 494
  • Perhaps there is no such thing as unilateral power. After all, the man "in power" depends on receiving information all the time from outside. He responds to that information just as much as he "causes" things to is an interaction, and not a lineal situation.
    • p. 494

Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity, 1979 edit

Gregory Bateson (1979) Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity. New York: E. P. Dutton.

  • Logic is a poor model of cause and effect.
    • Chapter 2, section 13 as cited in: Gregory Bateson (1988) Mind and nature: a necessary unity. p. 134
  • The map is not the territory, and the name is not the thing named (see also, Alfred Korzybski).
    • p. 30
  • In the transmission of human culture, people always attempt to replicate, to pass on to the next generation the skills and values of the parents, but the attempt always fails because cultural transmission is geared to learning, not DNA.
    • p. 49
  • Language commonly stresses only one side of any interaction.
    • p. 56
  • Rather, for all objects and experiences there is a quantity that has an optimum value. Above that quantity, the variable becomes toxic. To fall below that value is to be deprived.
    • p. 56
  • Criteria of Mind
    1) A mind is an aggregate of interacting parts or components.
    2) The interaction between parts of mind is triggered by difference, and difference is a nonsubstantial phenomenon not located in space or time; difference is related to negentropy and entropy rather than 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. The rules of such transformation must be comparatively stable (i.e., more stable than the content), but are in themselves subject to transformation.
    6) The description and classification of these processes of transformation disclose a hierarchy of logical types immanent in the phenomena.
  • Epistemology is always and inevitably personal. The point of the probe is always in the heart of the explorer: What is my answer to the question of the nature of knowing?
    • p. 93

Mind and Nature, a necessary unity, 1988 edit

Gregory Bateson (1988) Mind and nature: a necessary unity.

  • Science, like art, religion, commerce, warfare, and even sleep, is based on presuppositions. It differs, however, from most other branches of human activity in that not only are the pathways of scientific thought determined by the presuppositions of the scientists but their goals are the testing and revision of old presuppositions and the creation of new.
    • p. 25
  • Science sometimes improves hypothesis and sometimes disproves them. But proof would be another matter and perhaps never occurs except in the realms of totally abstract tautology. We can sometimes say that if such and such abstract suppositions or postulates are given, then such and such abstract suppositions or postulates are given, then such and such must follow absolutely. But the truth about what can be perceived or arrived at by induction from perception is something else again.
    • p. 27
  • We do not know enough about how the present will lead into the future. We shall never be able to say, "Ha! My perception, my accounting for that series, will indeed cover its next and future components," or "Next time I meet with these phenomena, I shall be able to predict their total course.
    • p. 29
  • Prediction can never be absolutely valid and therefore science can never prove some generalization or even test a single descriptive statement and in that way arrive at final truth.
    • p. 29
  • It is, I claim, nonsense to say that it does not matter which individual man acted as the nucleus for the change. It is precisely this that makes history unpredictable into the future. The Marxian error is a simple blunder in logical typing, a confusion of individual with class.
    • p. 45
  • The messages cease to be messages when nobody can read them. Without a Rosetta stone, we would know nothing of all that was written in Egyptian hieroglyphs. They would be only elegant ornaments on papyrus or rock. To be meaningful - even to be recognized as pattern - every regularity must meet with complementary regularities, perhaps skills, and these skills are as evanescent as the patterns themselves. They, too, are written on sand or the surface of waters.
    • p. 48
  • In the transmission of human culture, people always attempt to replicate, to pass on to the next generation the skills and values of the parents, but the attempt always fails because cultural transmission is geared to learning, not DNA.
    • p. 49
  • Money is always transitively valued. More money is supposedly always better than less money.
    • p. 56
  • A relationship with no combat in it is dull, and a relationship with too much combat in it is toxic. What is desirable is a relationship with a certain optimum of conflict.
    • p. 56
  • Human sense organs can receive only news of difference, and the differences must be coded into events in time (i.e., into changes) in order to be perceptible. Ordinary static differences that remain constant for more than a few seconds become perceptible, only by scanning. Similarly, very slow changes become perceptible only by a combination of scanning and bringing together observations from separated moments in the continuum of time.
    • p. 74-75
  • To think straight, it is advisable to expect all qualities and attributes, adjectives, and so on to refer to at least two sets of interactions in time.
    • p. 68
  • Let's not pretend that mental phenomena can be mapped on to the characteristics of billiard balls.
    • p. 99
  • Number is different from quantity.
    • p. 118
  • The world partly becomes — comes to be — how it is imagined.
    • p. 223

Quotes about Gregory Bateson edit

  • Gregory Bateson, anthropologist and philosopher, was a deeply original thinker who crossed multiple disciplines, always sitting on the edge between them. He began only late in life to attempt to synthesise his many contributions. As Brockman (2004) wrote, “Bateson is not easy … To spend time with him, in person or through his essays, was a rigorous intelligent exercise, an immense relief from the trivial forms that command respect in contemporary society.” But his contributions were considerable, to a wide range of fields. He was perhaps the most wide-ranging and profound thinker in early cybernetics, and his work provides a foundation for much of the important work that followed, and a deep insight into the problems of the world today.
    • Magnus Ramage and Karen Shipp (2009) Systems Thinkers. p. 11

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