Gregory Bateson changed the way we think about changing ourselves

By | July 15, 2019

Tim Parks writes:

[F]or Bateson the only worthy object of study appeared to be human behaviour, the kind of complex circumstances – the war, British academia, his family background – that had created the drama he was living through. What he would eventually do was to use the tools of observation and analysis that his father taught him, the zoologist’s attention to patterning and morphology, to bring a fresh approach to the study of behaviour in groups, and above all how individuals communicate and relate in groups. Rereading his two great works, Naven (1936) and Steps to an Ecology of Mind (1972), it is evident that his influence in various fields has been enormous; also, that the message he eventually formulated through the 1960s and ’70s remains as urgent as ever.

Or rather messages. Having grown up in a world where one was told all too clearly what to do, Bateson scrupulously avoided offering firm directives. A summary of the conclusions he reached at the end of his career might run like this: both society and the environment are profoundly sick, skewed and ravaged by the Western obsession with control and power, a mindset made all the more destructive by advances in technology. However, any attempt to put things right with more intervention and more technology can only be another manifestation of the same wrongheadedness.

This might seem a recipe for defeatism and immobility. But Bateson was nothing if not subtle. Conflicting imperatives, paradoxes and no-win situations, he insisted, might well drive us mad, but they also spawn creativity, and even art. Faced with an impossible choice – a ‘koan’ as Zen Buddhists call it – you will be forced to revolutionise the way you think in order to move on. Rather than suggest technical solutions to the world’s problems, Bateson hoped that he might inspire us to start thinking about changing ourselves. For, ‘the major problems in the world,’ he wrote ‘are the result of the difference between how nature works and the way people think.’ [Continue reading…]

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