Steps to an Ecology of Mind
This collection of previously published essays and lectures amounts to a retrospective exhibition of a working life. Such a suggestion would not disturb a scientist who is not fully satisfied by “the general trend of scientific philosophy associated with such names as Democritus, Galileo, Newton, Lavoisier, and Darwin” and who now advocates a serious look at “the less respectable views of such men as Heraclitus, the alchemists, William Blake, Lamarck, and Samuel Butler.” For these latter,
the motive for scientific inquiry was the desire to build a comprehensive view of the universe which should show what Man is and how he is related to the rest of the universe. The picture which these men were trying to build was ethical and aesthetic.
Gregory Bateson has come to this position during a career that carried him not only into anthropology, for which he was first trained, but into psychiatry too, as well as psychology, genetics, and communication theory. Such personal flexibility in a serious scholar is rare enough, but the open-mindedness of the other professionals who gave him scope could probably have been found during his lifetime only in America. Nowhere else could he have pursued his unorthodox lines of research with so much financial support from official sources and scientific foundations: his very human account—more than a perfunctory acknowledgment—of the aid he received, including support for research that failed, is in itself a document of cultural history.
Casual acquaintance with his writing rests primarily on his “double bind” theory of the causation of schizophrenia, a theory which has influenced R.D. Laing, among many others, and also perhaps on the notion of “schismogenesis” arising out of his early anthropological field work. He himself, as the title of this book implies, would see these particular contributions as points in a much wider sweep of inquiry which examines the nature of mind, seeing it not as a nebulous something, somehow lodged somewhere in the body of each man, but as a network of interactions relating the individual with his society and his species and with the universe at large. He stands therefore among those who object to any simple separation of “organism” from “environment,” and he tries to elaborate a positive conception of the system which together they constitute.
Every organism and all its actions, in his view, are set in a “context” which is no mere background but which shapes and is shaped by every living action. That context has a larger context, which in turn is related to its own context, still wider, and so on in an infinite regress. Bateson goes beyond the more matter-of-fact ecologists who are content to examine the species and its habitat, to whose maintenance or impairment it contributes. He thinks of the interaction between each organism and the total, unimaginably extended ecosystem, which for him becomes a replacement for “God”—rather like Swinburne’s “Hertha”:
One birth of my bosom;
One beam of mine eye…
Man, equal and one with me,…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.