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A Recursive Vision

A Recursive Vision: Ecological Understanding and Gregory Bateson

Copyright Date: 1995
Pages: 358
  • Book Info
    A Recursive Vision
    Book Description:

    Gregory Bateson was one of the most original social scientists of this century. He is widely known as author of key ideas used in family therapy - including the well-known condition called 'double bind' . He was also one of the most influential figures in cultural anthropology. In the decade before his death in 1980 Bateson turned toward a consideration of ecology. Standard ecology concentrates on an ecosystem's biomass and on energy budgets supporting life. Bateson came to the conclusion that understanding ecological organization requires a complete switch in scientific perspective. He reasoned that ecological phenomena must be explained primarily through patterns of information and that only through perceiving these informational patterns will we uncover the elusive unity, or integration, of ecosystems.

    Bateson believed that relying upon the materialist framework of knowledge dominant in ecological science will deepen errors of interpretation and, in the end, promote eco-crisis. He saw recursive patterns of communication as the basis of order in both natural and human domains. He conducted his investigation first in small-scale social settings; then among octopus, otters, and dolphins. Later he took these investigations to the broader setting of evolutionary analysis and developed a framework of thinking he called 'an ecology of mind.' Finally, his inquiry included an ecology of mind in ecological settings - a recursive epistemology.

    This is the first study of the whole range of Bateson's ecological thought - a comprehensive presentaionof Bateson's matrix of ideas. Drawing on unpublished letters and papers, Harries-Jones clarifies themes scattered throughout Bateson's own writings, revealing the conceptual consistency inherent in Bateson's position, and elaborating ways in which he pioneered aspects of late twentieth-century thought.

    eISBN: 978-1-4426-7044-0
    Subjects: Anthropology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. A Brief Biographical Chronology of Gregory Bateson
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  5. A Note on Reference Style
    (pp. xv-2)
  6. Introduction
    (pp. 3-15)

    Ideas, like natural species, can become extinct. How best can we create a science of nature that takes our new sense of ecological impermanence into account? We live in a world desperate to discover a set of rules from which we can derive principles about the environment, and relations between human activity and environment, yet the holistic perspectives we require seem to elude us. This book interleaves three themes: the ideas of the most brilliant holistic scientist of this century; his notions of pattern in recursive, non-linear systems; and the perspective he brings to our ecological predicament.

    A few years...

  7. 1 The Youngest Bateson
    (pp. 16-34)

    BATESON, GREGORY (1904–80): 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.

    So begins the entry, written by David Lipset, Gregory Batesonʹs biographer, forThe Social Science Encyclopedia(Kuper and Kuper 1985: 64). As innovator and generalist, Bateson follows in the footsteps of his famous father, William Bateson, an Edwardian naturalist whose interests ranged over zoology, biology, natural history, and evolution. William Bateson is best known for the positions he took on the debate about evolution at the turn of the...

  8. 2 A Theory of Consciousness
    (pp. 35-56)

    Bateson was never shy of dropping his readers into the midst of the great problems of the world. The great problem presented in this chapter is the causal relation between ʹselfʹ and ʹsystem.ʹ In ecology and biology, the concomitant problem is the causal relation between ʹorganismʹ and ʹenvironment.ʹ Dominant discourse, whether in biology, sociology, or psychology, conceives of causal relations and interactions in terms of energy, power, and control. Bateson frames his arguments in an alternative perspective, that of organized communication. While a communicative perspective is not unusual in either sociology or psychology, Bateson carries his discussion of communicative order...

  9. 3 The Map Is Not the Territory: Time, Change, and Survival
    (pp. 57-80)

    Bateson believed that he was living at a turning point of the history of science, indeed of the history of humanity itself, though this experience would require lengthy interpretation before the nature of the transformation was understood. Twentieth-century natural science was still committed to a materialist perspective, and in Batesonʹs view, materialist science claimed too much for its own theories. Nevertheless, physicists had begun to challenge, even ʹdematerialize,ʹ existing concepts of matter in the early years of the twentieth century, and Bateson paid the most careful attention to the history of this process.

    We have dealt so far with Bateson...

  10. 4 Metaphors for Living Forms
    (pp. 81-102)

    Bateson emerges as a remarkable innovator, not only in his imaginative expression of an ʹecology of ideas,ʹ but in the thematic presentation of these ideas. He experiments in his texts with non-linear forms of argument and in this manner matches the form of communication with the knowledge he is trying to convey. Living form spirals, and so Batesonʹs text spirals – in its own metaphor for living form. One commentator, close to Bateson in the last years of his life, writes: ʹBateson is sometimes regarded as difficult to read. The obstacle is one of form rather than content. The misconception...

  11. 5 Cybernetics – Janus of Modernity
    (pp. 103-121)

    A reader merely dipping into Batesonʹs writing could scarcely avoid Batesonʹs attachment to cybernetic principles and might quickly conclude that Bateson is a mechanist who supports a technical, computer-oriented approach to ecological order.¹ The opposite is the case. Batesonʹs relationship with cybernetics was full of ambivalence. As this chapter will show, he could at once claim to be a founder of cybernetics, since he was an important figure at the Macy conferences of the 1940s which officially began the discipline, and its most trenchant critic. Certainly Bateson became full of despair over the technical pretensions of some of the leading...

  12. 6 Communication and Its Embodiment
    (pp. 122-144)

    Ashby had presented only a technical model of homeostasis, and any attempt to make a cybernetic explanation of a technical homeostat available for natural systems would require an extensive elaboration of the communicative processes involved. The rules of coherence and order evoked by the study of cybernetic coupling in a mechanical or technical sense are much like the relation between a key and a lock. In mechanical objects, the ʹopening powerʹ of a key lies in the pattern of constraints of its configuration in relation to the form of the lock. A key has no ʹpowerʹ to accomplish anything without...

  13. 7 Mind and Nature
    (pp. 145-167)

    Throughout the 1960s, Bateson was hoping that he might achieve a set of concepts about communication which so evidently fitted natural phenomena that he would be able to say that natural communication was isomorphic to human communication. He would attempt to address this question at a fundamental level, that of coding, feedback, and classification of types of feedback. The thrust of this proposal was radical. Bateson wanted not only to compare patterns of communicative behaviour among various species; but he wanted to compare all forms of behavioural communication in the animal world with genetic information so that ʹthere may be...

  14. 8 Recursion
    (pp. 168-191)

    We noted in the last chapter that as Bateson moved his sphere of interest towards reflexive processes of communication in the natural world, the framework of cybernetic explanation on which he had so long relied began to become slippery at the edges of explanation. This trend was even more strongly pronounced in his discussion of logical types, which, for more than twenty years, had provided an abstract structure through which he could analyse the complex interrelations between coding and rules of relationship. For reasons which will be discussed in more detail below, logical typing did not work as a formal...

  15. 9 The Pattern Which Connects
    (pp. 192-211)

    The appearance of Bateson as ecologist coincides with the publication inStepsof a selection of papers under the title ʹCrisis in the Ecology of Mind.ʹ As mentioned in chapter 4, Bateson regardedStepsprimarily as a book on systems thinking, rather than about ecology, and it appeared precisely at the time when systems thinking was becoming embedded in computer technology. Though computers had been an integral part of defence planning for a couple of decades, the rapid and continuing reduction in size of computers and the comparative ease with which they could be handled was creating a sizeable civilian...

  16. 10 Visions of Unity
    (pp. 212-234)

    An ecological perspective depends upon a view of the whole, but the very unity of the biosphere poses a conundrum for those who wish to depict it. The previous chapter presented a phase of Batesonʹs resolution of this conundrum, a move towards the opening up of an aesthetic field in which active processes of perception link the environmental surround to human activity. The ʹuncoveringʹ of abstract aesthetic patterns – patterns which connect – is not the same as subjective insight, he argued. Nor can this patterning be ʹuncoveredʹ by scientific description alone. Rather, aesthetic patterns are epistemological, and recursive. Thus,...

  17. APPENDIX 1: Two Models of Ecology Compared: Odum and Bateson
    (pp. 235-242)
  18. APPENDIX 2: Models of Recursive Hierarchy: Logical Types and Double Bind
    (pp. 243-251)
  19. APPENDIX 3: Batesonʹs Model of Co-evolution
    (pp. 252-260)
  20. APPENDIX 4: Scan, Interface, and Double Vision: A Model for Perceiving Ecological Wholes
    (pp. 261-266)
  21. Notes
    (pp. 267-320)
  22. Select Bibliography
    (pp. 321-342)
  23. Author Index
    (pp. 343-346)
  24. Subject Index
    (pp. 347-358)