Gregory Bateson Biography

By Philip Guddemi

GREGORY BATESON (1904-1980) was a thinker of unusual range.  In conventional disciplinary terms he was accomplished as a field and theoretical anthropologist, a pioneer of cybernetics, a learning theorist, a researcher about mental disorders, a founder of family therapy, a researcher on animal minds, an early advocate for ecological wisdom, and a uniquely stimulating teacher about all of these.  But this diversity belies what he, especially near the end of his life, felt to be the unity of his mode of thought.
What prevents Gregory Bateson from being a period piece, and makes him a figure for our times, is not only the worldview he synthesized from his inquiries, but the questioning spirit from which his ideas were forged.  To be in his presence was not to feel the intimidation of an authoritative mastery.  Rather it was to feel the presence of a frontier of understanding, and to absorb the confidence that learning to think fearlessly and clearly, as he did, would expand that frontier.  He was always questioning, and often laughing, even in the proximity of the most serious issues. 
His intellectual inquiry was very much his own.  He did not exploit easy topics or reach for low-hanging fruit. Instead he specialized in noticing phenomena and relationships that challenged the very fabric of his and his contemporaries’ often unspoken presuppositions.  He would apprentice himself to a field of thought and then develop his own ideas dialectically in a way which transformed that thought.  In writing up his New Guinea anthropological research he was among the first to transcend the functionalist categories used to analyze cultures by seeing them as artifacts in the minds of the analysts (and sometimes partly in the minds of the people analyzed as well).  He then absorbed the ideas of the culture and personality school, particularly of Margaret Mead and their joint friend Ruth Benedict — but then transformed these ideas from typologies of culture into a unique theory of process (as he describes in Chapter 7 of Mind and Nature).  As a participant in the Macy Conferences which founded cybernetics, he absorbed the mathematical and logical rigor of analytical philosophy and mid-century neuroscience, then turned their ideas inside out by embracing the paradoxes they banished, and showing the place of these paradoxes in the lives of organisms — as play, and humor, and art, as well as in what we think of as mental dysfunction.

As a learning theorist he absorbed the ideas of the behaviorism of his time, only to reintroduce the context they had so painstakingly excluded, so as to make them a foundation of a theory of learning to learn.  This reintroduction of context also became the basis for a new understanding of therapy, in which the dysfunctions of “mentally ill” individuals were seen as part of communication in family systems — communication which both exemplifies and reinforces the systemic paradoxes he began to term “double binds.” 
Returning to the evolutionary concerns of his father William Bateson, Gregory noted the ways that pattern and “message” infused each organism’s development as well as the larger picture of evolution.  He began to challenge ideas of adaptation and environment, in rigorous ways that few to date have taken up or taken on.  He also began to apply some of his ideas of contextual communication to nonhuman animals such as dolphins and even octopus.

His contextual approach led him to an early understanding of the dangers posed by any rapid alteration in the human relationship with “environment.”  He was especially lucid about the dangers of  empowered “conscious purpose,” a feature of human action which which can degrade the living complexity of the larger contexts in which humans as organisms have our being.

He never described his thinking as involving a new world view, but always as involving a different epistemology. In classic second-order cybernetic fashion he always related perception and observation back to the observer and perceiver — always a living one, or a living-like systemic one, though not always a human one.  One’s perceptions of solidity, such as of a table, arise through relation — in the battle between my hand and the table, the table wins.

But it is important that one can never know, in all its detail, how one constructs what one perceives.  Like so much else of mind, and learning, this is not and cannot always be conscious.  Nevertheless it is important to understand the mind-relativity of anything we think we know.  We arrive at a perspective which is neither solipsistic nor its opposite, one based not on substance but on relation. 
But by no means did this lead, in Gregory Bateson, to a concept that “anything goes.”  Instead, using the organism-in-environment as the unified unit of adaptation, he pioneered an economics of flexibility that demonstrates in a new way what encourages and diminishes the ongoing survival of living systems.  But this can only be understood in principle, because the complexity of systems, and our own limited processing capacity, should discourage our hubris about being able to determine or control in any definitive way the systems which include and enfold us within them.

Gregory Bateson’s Obituary, published in 1982 by The American Anthropologist, is available as a zipped PDF download: HERE.