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The Pattern That Connects

The process of patterning is unfamiliar to most of us. It is not that we are not responsive to patterns. For example, we pattern across instances of other people's behavior in order to derive our conclusions about their character. We consider someone "trustworthy" if we have sufficient and sufficiently convincing examples of their having warranted trust. We can draw these examples from our own experience of them or from the reports of others. Wherever the "data" comes from we are engaging in a process of patterning when we reach our summation that this person is trustworthy. So it is something we do, but it is not something we tend to do intentionally; we rarely think pattern.

"The pattern that connects" is what might be termed an intellectual slogan for the work of Gregory Bateson. Bateson's interest in pattern did not fit an academic culture based on "things." While academia was intent on classifying those things into the categories which defined the different fields of scientific endeavor, Bateson's quest for the pattern that connects was orthogonal to the mainstream, and suffered accordingly.

The pattern that connects things is abstract. It is not a thing itself. Pattern concerns the relationship between things. It must have seemed very vague and amorphous a pursuit to those in thrall to the materiality of things. You can see a bunch of things, and grab them; but you can't grab the relationship between them. Nor can you count the different relationships between them as you can count the things themselves. A slippery subject, this pattern stuff.

Having taken Bateson as the preeminent advocate of a pattern approach, it may be useful to see how he separates out his domain, beginning with:

...the underlying notion of a dividing line between the world of the living (where distinctions are drawn and difference can be a cause) and the world of nonliving billiard balls and galaxies (where forces and impacts are the "causes" of events). These are the two worlds that Jung (following the Gnostics) calls creatura (the living) and pleroma (the nonliving). I was asking: What is the difference between the physical world of pleroma, where forces and impacts provide sufficient basis of explanation, and the creatura, where nothing can be understood until differences and distinctions are invoked?In my life I have put the descriptions of sticks and stones and billiard balls and galaxies in one box, the pleroma, and have left them alone. In the other box, I put living things: crabs, people, problems of beauty, and problems of difference. The contents of the second box are the subject [of my work]. (Bateson, 1980).

The hegemony of Western science has been founded upon its attention to the world of things. Bateson is heir to what he describes as a parallel but hidden tradition in which attention has been on pattern, coursing through the background of history, from Pythagoras to the Gnostics to the alchemists and up into the present, surfacing in cybernetics, systems theory, complexity and a certain stream of computer science.

The pattern approach is tricky because it is neither part of culture nor of education in the West. Today we know we need to be thinking systemically. But it doesn't come naturally. Much of the difficulty of grasping Bateson's work, and the implications it has for personal and social action, is due to its underlying unfamiliarity. We think about things, we might even think about the way we are thinking about things but, far too often, all that thinking is the same kind of thinking. The kind of thinking we are used to using - linear logic. After all, isn't that what rationality means?

Just because we can espouse the need for a systemic perspective doesn't mean we can follow it through in practice. It often feels as if our attempts are like drawing a circle with a ruler. If we make small enough straight lines of linear logic, and angle them, maybe we can get a rough approximation of a circle. Not quite the same thing, though, is it. One can't say it really flows.

Reference: Gregory Bateson. Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity, Bantam Books, New York 1980.