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, man that is made of me, man that is I.

Bateson’s views have strongly appealed in recent years to the younger generation of psychologists and anthropologists, among others. The reason for this appeal is in part that he derived his familiar point of view from developments in scientific thinking, especially cybernetics:

The cybernetic epistemology which I have offered you would suggest a new approach. The individual mind is immanent but not only in the body. It is immanent also in pathways and messages outside the body; and there is a larger Mind of which the individual mind is only a subsystem. This larger Mind is comparable to God and is perhaps what some people mean by “God,” but it is still immanent in the total interconnected social system and planetary ecology.

Attuned to contemporary conditions, Bateson has included in this book a Preface by Mark Engel, one of his own students, as in bygone times young writers used to get senior colleagues to give a polite prefatory blessing. Commending it “to you, my brothers and sisters of the new culture, in the hope that it will help us on our journey,” Mr. Engel speaks for and to those who are under thirty, many of whom (some with the help of psychedelics) have learned the arbitrariness of perception and “have decided that if reality doesn’t mean what we thought it did then there is no meaning in it at all.” From this position Mr. Engel sees only two escape routes: either religious conversion (and he speaks of having tried Taoism himself) or else, and more difficult, thinking things through, replacing “the low level of what passes for thinking among most of the American academic community” with the kind of better thinking that he finds in Gregory Bateson.

The odd and encouraging thing is that Bateson’s work is thoroughly academic; but he is not afraid to show that for him its importance springs from its relevance to people and their problems, including his own problem of making some sort of sense of his place in the universe. From the late nineteenth-century view of Swinburne’s “Hertha” he replies to the mid-nineteenth-century despair of Edward FitzGerald:


Into this Universe, and Why not knowing
Nor Whence…

but he frames his reply in contemporary arguments.

The network of relationships which he calls “mind” is essentially the same as the network of interactions involved in the use of a computer. Everything in such a system depends on discriminated items—or, as he would say, just “differences”—and a mutually corrective interaction among them. The computer’s calculations, he argues, are not in themselves a mental process.

The computer is only an arc of a larger circuit which always includes a man and an environment from which information is received and upon which efferent messages from the computer have effect. This total system, or ensemble, may legitimately be said to show mental characteristics. It operates by trial and error and has creative character.

If we are tempted to rephrase this as meaning simply that a man’s “mind” is using the computer as a “tool,” Bateson will have none of such a distinction. He considers a blind man with a stick:

Where does the blind man’s self begin? At the tip of the stick? At the handle of the stick? Or at some point halfway up the stick? These questions are nonsense, because the stick is a pathway along which differences are transmitted under transformation, so that to draw a delimiting line across this pathway is to cut off a part of the systemic circuit which determines the blind man’s locomotion.

He puts it in general terms when he writes,

In no system which shows mental characteristics can any part have unilateral control over the whole. In other words, the mental characteristics of the system are immanent, not in some part, but in the system as a whole.

As a paradigm he takes the system created by a man and the tree that man is chopping down:

Each stroke of the axe is modified or corrected, according to the shape of the cut face of the tree left by the previous stroke. This self-corrective (i.e., mental) process is brought about by a total system, tree-eyes-brain-muscles-axe-stroke-tree, and it is this total system that has the characteristics of immanent mind.

Persuasively as this position is presented, it leaves an uneasy feeling that something has been omitted: naïvely, that the man was somehow decisive, intending the tree to come down—it was not that the tree meant to fall and enlisted a man with an axe. The difficulty with such a wide definition is in knowing whether any ongoing set of interactions is excluded from this notion of the “mental.” A reed shaken by the wind, for instance, bending to strong gusts, recovering, vibrating in eddies—is this and the low-pressure system that produced the wind to be regarded as mental?—or the reciprocally modifying behavior of molecular structures in a chemical reaction? Unfortunately this question of what, on his showing, is not mental receives no clear answer in Bateson’s exposition, and we are left to wonder whether we need the term “mind” when we already have “interaction.”

It remains true, as Bateson rightly insists, that the organism is not to be separated from its environment as if it were a foreign body lodged within it. Man is in a sense a product of the surroundings that he himself so much alters, having lungs because there is air, ears because of sound waves, and so on; he and his ecological niche have been mutually defining themselves throughout the millennia. Yet, once constituted by this process, each species (and each individual) possesses great autonomy, both to evaluate what is outside itself and to initiate action, and the action is far from being immediately checked by environmental feedback. In fact the negative feedback of environmental control may operate too slowly to correct a faulty development by any means short of extinguishing a species. The tree being chopped may participate in corrective feedback but still it will fall. A man, in the short span of his life, may do ecologically outrageous things without suffering in the least. Otherwise he would not be “the most dangerous animal in the world” (as the Bronx Zoo used to label its heavily barred mirror).

Bateson is fully aware of this. He gives ample attention to pollution and the progressive impairment of habitat. But he fails to relate these things clearly to his idea of man-with-environment constituting a “mind”; if it is a mind, it must be a lamentably unsound one. Of course that is not an impossible idea, since even the human mind as conventionally thought of does fearful violence to itself. But if Bateson could have brought out how dangerously independent of its surroundings the human mind can be, at least in the short run, he might also have done more justice to the valuable side of autonomous individuality, especially in society. Some liking for—or toleration of—an ideal of social organization that merges and submerges the individual in the group is evident in his account of the village society which he studied in Bali, where stability is the overriding ideal and rivalries are minimized; individual offenses are corrected by fines imposed by the village, at first very small but rising steeply with any delay in payment,


…and if there be any sign that the offender is refusing to pay—“opposing the village”—the fine is at once raised to an enormous sum and the offender is deprived of membership in the community until he is willing to give up his opposition.

Again, in discussing schizophrenia as the outcome of a social and familial constellation rather than a simply individual “disease,” he suggests that it must be seen as

part of the ecology of ideas in systems or “minds” whose boundaries no longer coincide with the skins of the participant individuals.

His emphasis on the importance of this network of personal interaction is unquestionably right, but when he calls it a “mind,” as if that were more than a vivid analogy, he runs into the danger of diminishing both individual responsibility and society’s respect for individual integrity. In that position we have no defense against those old notions of the group mind and the general will which can underpin the worst totalitarian tyrannies. The State all too readily claims to embody that “mind,” whose only organs of expression are then the bureaucracy and the secret police. The problem is genuinely difficult. The older sociologists, Morris Ginsberg for instance, were surely right in rejecting the notion of a group mind and fearing the pitfalls in moral philosophy and politics which it concealed, but they may not have guarded sufficiently against an over-simple view of the individual and his relations with others.

We do not have to accept Bateson’s comprehensive notions of mind to see that he has done valuable service in exploring more closely and describing more boldly the subtle and powerful ways in which a network of personal interactions comes between people and their surroundings. His early concept of schismogenesis derived from his field work in anthropology, but he applies it widely. It identified a process by which two distinct but related groups in a community—or individuals in a personal relation—are impelled toward more extreme or sharply differentiated positions than they would otherwise have adopted.

His “symmetrical” schismogenesis, in which each side—each of two kin groups in a tribe, for example—tries to outdo the other in, say, domination or boasting, is too much like rivalry or competition for the new label to be illuminating. But his notion of “complementary” schismogenesis is more interesting: here, in a reciprocal relationship—such as domination-submission, display-admiration, speaking-listening—one group or one individual tends always to be on the same side of the schism and eventually to over-emphasize the habitual role. So, for example, instead of share and share alike between marriage partners, in speaking and listening there may develop a relation of volubility-taciturnity, each partner unintentionally enhancing unwelcome behavior in the other.

At times the division of psychological function may be institutionalized. Bateson gives as an instance the allocation of the roles of performer and audience between parents and children, seeing in this respect a sharp contrast between America and England:

“Spectatorship” is in England a filial characteristic, linked with dependency and submission, while in America spectatorship is a parental characteristic linked with dominance and succoring….

…An Englishman when he is applauding another is indicating or signalling potential submission and/or dependency; when he shows off or demands spectatorship, he is signalling dominance or superiority; and so on. Every Englishman who writes a book must be guilty of this. For the American, the converse must hold. His boasting is but a bid for quasiparental approval.

The dramatically improbable generalization which still holds a grain of truth worth reflecting on is not uncommon in Bateson and no doubt enhances his appeal to some readers.

The idea of complementary schismogenesis can obviously be extended beyond activities or attitudes that are strictly reciprocal; it can apply to the onesided development of qualities that simply contrast with one another. So, for instance, in our Western cultures, in spite of so much common ground emotionally between men and women there remain developments of attitude and outlook that are conventionally regarded as “sissy” in men, and others regarded as “hard” in women. Both toughness and tenderness are potentialities in us all and culturally valued in different circumstances, but they are farmed out for special cultivation by each of the sexes of our society. In the same way artists and scientists develop, and may easily overdevelop, their respective values; the innovating young and the conserving middle-aged; the creative people and the administrators who watch budgets and timetables.

Between individuals, colleagues at work, or marriage partners, the same thing goes on. The husband proposes lavish and expansive plans knowing that his wife will make prudent objections to which he will grudgingly yield instead of having to put the brakes on for himself; the wife can express vitriolic opinions because the husband is sure to make a mildly charitable demur. Without each other, with the opposition suddenly removed, both would find themselves off balance.

There would be little point in trying to estimate the profit and loss from this sort of schismogenesis. For it we can claim that it gives society a psychological orchestration, a greater range of exploration among values than any but the most exceptional individual could compass alone. Against it is the fact that it deflects us as individuals from direct commerce with the possibilities of the world and our own life, refracting experience through the medium of roles we are scarcely aware of playing and letting us off with less than complete commitment to what we seem to stand for.

The double bind, the power of which Bateson first drew attention to, is a yet more sinister way of denying what we seem to mean—but still meaning it. It consists in making two contradictory demands simultaneously. One of the opposing messages is tacit, conveyed by some of the countless devices by which we alter the nature of our literal statement—showing, for instance, that we are joking or being ironic, expressing hurt or reproach, playfully exaggerating, moderating our real feelings—all varieties of what Bateson calls metacommunication.

Psychiatric situations highlight the process. Bateson describes how a young man

who had fairly well recovered from an acute schizophrenic episode was visited in the hospital by his mother. He was glad to see her and impulsively put his arm around her shoulders, whereupon she stiffened. He withdrew his arm and she asked, “Don’t you love me any more?” He then blushed, and she said, “Dear, you must not be so easily embarrassed and afraid of your feelings.”

He was able to stay with her only a few minutes more and when she had gone he relapsed and became violent.

The tangle of cross-purposes expressed in the unspoken penumbra of each verbal message—the words being only a fraction of what we convey when we speak to one another—is illustrated in another clinical incident, one that merges with ordinary social behavior and has familiar parallels in everyday life. A patient going from the hospital on a brief visit to his mother was accompanied by Bateson, who found the home obsessionally neat, tidy, symmetrical, with plastic flowers, “not a house furnished to live in, but rather furnished to look like a furnished house.” Leaving the patient with the mother, Bateson had time to spare,

…and I began to think what I would like to do to this setup. What and how could I communicate? I decided that I would like to put into it something that was both beautiful and untidy…. I decided that flowers were the answer, so I bought some gladioluses…. I presented them to the mother with a speech that I wanted her to have something that was “both beautiful and untidy.” “Oh!” she said, “Those are not untidy flowers. As each one withers, you can snip it off.”

Now, as I see it, what is interesting is not so much the castrative statement in that speech, but the putting me in the position of having apologized when in fact I had not. That is, she took my message and reclassified it. She changed the label which indicated what sort of a message it was, and that is, I believe, what she does all the time. An endless taking of the other person’s message and replying to it as if it were either a statement of weakness on the part of the speaker or an attack on her which should be turned into a weakness on the part of the speaker; and so on.

An interesting thing, which Bateson must have noticed though he makes no mention of it, is that the mother’s answer was an unconscious tit-for-tat, his own message with the flowers having been a duplicity: ostensibly a deferential or friendly gift, they were in fact a clinical sermon or reproach. If she had been angry at the reproach she would have been a rude and ungrateful recipient of a pleasant gift. She found her own way out of that double bind.

According to Bateson’s “communicational theory of the origin and nature of schizophrenia,” this sticky web of crisscrossing, contradictory, unacknowledged messages has bound the schizophrenic’s every impulse and movement of interpersonal feeling from infancy onward. As a psychiatric theory it meets with difficulties, for instance the genetic element in the condition, and the escape from the disease of siblings exposed to the same upbringing, difficulties that Bateson recognizes and tries to overcome. But even if the double bind proved to be only a small part of the complex story of schizophrenia, the concept would have undiminished usefulness in identifying a range of interpersonal techniques that make for mutual deception in ordinary social life—or, rather, for mutual failure to deceive fully or communicate frankly.

At its most innocent it has the transparency of polite convention: “Oh please don’t go to any trouble about it”—when we should be taken aback at the reply, “Okay, I won’t bother.” Often it serves the uneasy parent as a way of generating anxiety in a teenager while ostensibly conferring freedom: “Well, you must decide for yourself, dear; you’re old enough now” (sotto voce, “and don’t say I didn’t warn you”). The masquerades of unselfishness find it invaluable: “Oh, don’t mind about me—you go off and enjoy yourselves” (laden with guilt if the ploy works).

The concept of the double bind carries with it an insistence on the great range of communication that goes on either without words or with words used in such a way that their literal meaning is modified, even reversed, by the situation from which they emerge, a situation that may be revealed tacitly and unwittingly. One of the most valuable aspects of Bateson’s general position is his recognition that

…our life is such that its unconscious components are continuously present in all their multiple forms. It follows that in our relationships we continuously exchange messages about these unconscious materials, and it becomes important also to exchange metamessages by which we tell each other what order and species of unconsciousness (or consciousness) attaches to our messages.

This concern inevitably brings him to consider art. He suggests that when Isadora Duncan remarked, “If I could tell you what it meant, there would be no point in dancing it,” one possible meaning was that her dance was

precisely the sort of message which would be falsified if communicated in words, because the use of words (other than poetry) would imply that this is a fully conscious and voluntary message, and this would be simply untrue.

I believe that what Isadora Duncan or any artist is trying to communicate is more like: “This is a particular sort of partly unconscious message. Let us engage in this particular sort of partly unconscious communication.” Or perhaps: “This is a message about the interface between conscious and unconscious.”

It is the possibility of highly organized, coherent patterns of unverbalized feeling that for him gives the arts their significance. Quoting Pascal, “The heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of,” he italicizes “reasons” and puts into the same context Blake’s assertion, “A tear is an intellectual thing.” He could have added L.H. Myers’s phrase “the intelligence of the heart,” as well as Jung’s explicit account in discussing the feeling “function”:

Feeling values and feeling judgments—that is to say, our feelings—are not only reasonable, but are also as discriminating, logical and consistent as thinking.

Like these thinkers, Gregory Bateson denies logical thought a monopoly in establishing coherence in the pattern of man-in-society-in-environment. Among the forms of social patterning, schismogenesis takes its ambiguous place as a division of psychological roles which, like the division of labor, has its advantages and dangers. The concept of the double bind draws attention to a dislocation, occurring in innumerable and subtle forms, between on the one hand unverbalized patterns of interest, impulse, and emotion, and on the other the well-ordered thoughts which language encourages us to think we are thinking. This willingness to challenge thinking is itself a feature of the “better thinking” that Mr. Engel and his fellow students rightly welcome in Bateson’s work.

This Issue

October 19, 1972