IDEAS & ICONS
Bateson: The Man Without a Discipline
Gregory Bateson, born 1904, came of an English scientific heritage, his father being the Cambridge biologist who experimentally proved Mendel's theories on heredity and, coincidentally, coined the term "genetics." Bateson studied zoology and biology, beginning his own scientific career as an anthropologist working in New Britain and New Guinea, where he met Margaret Mead, with whom, after their marriage, he undertook fieldwork in Bali. Other disciplines he worked in include linguistics, ethnology, psychiatry, communications theory and cybernetics (where he was party to a portion of its development and elaboration). He never relinquished his interest in animal behavior and, at various times, conducted research with otters and octopuses, and into dolphin communication (with John Lilly).
Bateson stuck his nose into just about every scientific discipline that speaks to living things. In a time when it wasn't fashionable to be inter-disciplinary, he was beyond multi-disciplinary, off operating in his own meta-disciplinary domain. In later life he characterized the primary concern of that meta-disciplinary domain as "the pattern that connects": "What pattern connects the crab to the lobster and the orchid to the primrose and all the four of them to me? And me to you? And all the six of us to the amoeba in one direction and to the back-ward schizophrenic in another?"
Those questions range pretty wide. He sought his answers in the "overlap between formal premises and actual behavior," saying, "I have studied the area of impact between very abstract and formal philosophical thought on the one hand and the natural history of man and other creatures on the other."
Since his meta-disciplinary domain didn't exist outside of his own work there was no scientific field to claim him as their own, to support his work while he was alive or his legacy after his death. Nonetheless, he has influenced many other thinkers who have worked in a number of areas. For instance, he is held in high esteem by the world of family therapy (though this could not be accounted a scientific discipline) because the research which led to his "Double Bind Theory of Schizophrenia" was innovative in its examination of the relationship between the designated patient and the rest of their family system. Members of Bateson's research group, and those who worked closely with them, became some of the first to develop a systemic family therapy approach. He was also a pioneer, in this and other areas, of the use of photographic, audiotape and filmic records for research purposes.
Bateson's work was considered difficult to understand, and the difficulty remains that there are few readers who will have a background in all the disciplines he touches upon. At the same time, the cultural trajectory of ideas in the years since his death has led to a more receptive background, making his writing easier to grasp today than when it was written. His writing style, however, is at odds with the current tendency toward the prolix, being neither garrulous nor chatty. On the contrary, it exhibits a succinct concision that, at times, has a kinship to poetry. In recordings of his later talks, his aging voice is the voice of wisdom, carried on a tone of wry amusement. Since his death others have developed his ideas further and much experimental work has been undertaken. Still it is his writing that remains a stimulus to thought as, through his words, we experience his thoughts unfold. His work still lives and its import remains profound.
Gregory Bateson. Steps to An Ecology of Mind
Gregory Bateson. Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity
Gregory Bateson. A Sacred Unity
Gregory Bateson & Mary Catherine Bateson. Angels Fear: Towards an Epistemology of the Sacred