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Steps to an Ecology of Mind: Collected…

Steps to an Ecology of Mind: Collected Essays in Anthropology, Psychiatry,… (original 1972; edition 2000)

by Gregory Bateson

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Title:Steps to an Ecology of Mind: Collected Essays in Anthropology, Psychiatry, Evolution, and Epistemology
Authors:Gregory Bateson
Info:University Of Chicago Press (2000), Paperback, 565 pages
Collections:Your library

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Steps to an Ecology of Mind: Collected Essays in Anthropology, Psychiatry, Evolution, and Epistemology by Gregory Bateson (Author) (1972)

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    Total Man by Stan Gooch (philAbrams)
    philAbrams: I read both books round round about the same time when I was developing an interest in psychology and they had a powerful impact on my thought processes.

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  serzap | Oct 3, 2018 |
Extremely intelligently written but at times quite hard to follow. Bateson was evidently an extremely intelligent man and his essay on "Morale and National Character" (written during the Second World War) was a masterpiece with a very remarkable insight and thesis regarding the fact that setbacks were a greater motivator to otherwise divergent English speaking groups (British and American) and an better motivator that successes. This he contrasted to the Germans, for whom the opposite was the case. His "metalogues" were also brilliant both in their content and the way in which their form highlighted the points he was trying to make.

However there were times when he overlooked the obvious. For example he described how he once asked his students (I am quoting/paraphrasing from memory) "What circumstances dictate that a given person will perceive events as being predetermined while another perceives them as being susceptible to control." He described the question as useful, but at no point did he appear to recognize that the the question contained the words "circumstances determine" and thus tacitly accepted pre-determination as a fact - albeit smugly the idea in via the back door and not actually acknowledging its presence as the elephant in the room.

That gripe notwithstanding, this is a fascinating book for anyone with an interest in psychology, sociology, cultural anthropology, philosophy, modern history, etc. ( )
  philAbrams | Aug 13, 2015 |
Bateson summarizes his research agenda as an effort to identify elements for understanding Mind: the unit of analysis, difference; the analysand, that emergent complexity which attends certain differences interacting in specific ways. (Thus his title.) He builds from biological data and systematically integrates mental data, avoiding the sort of muddled thinking which often arises from theories about ideas or mental activity, and steadfastly opposing empirical reductionism. So: substance and form integrated into a metaphysical realism, steering a course between the Scylla of idealism and Charybdis of nominalism.

Bateson organises the essays here under six headings, and provides a précis of sorts with his notes at the end of each. Steps outlines his thinking and published work in broadest scope; speculate later books emphasize one or another of the six sections here. So if Mind & Nature focuses on evolution but skimps on hard examination of learning, here we see that each fits as one aspect of his overall thought. In Steps, Part 3 focuses on learning especially with respect to examples of alcoholism & schizophrenia, with Part 4 focusing on biology & evolution. These fit alongside Part 1's figurative examination of mind via Bateson's characteristic metalogues, which essays lead into Part 2 on the influence of information theory / cybernetics / logical types. Part 5 examines ecology & epistemology. Part 6 is the weakest in implementation, an ambitious effort to apply his thinking to pathology in environmental public policy.


Bateson's "essential minimal characteristics of a system ... of mind": [482]
• system operates with and upon difference [distinct from albeit linked to neurochemical basis of synaptic firings]
• system consists of closed loops / networks of pathways along which are transmitted differences / transforms of differences [ideas]
• many events in system energized by respondent part (e.g. metabolism) not triggering part [cybernetic not Newtonian causality]
• system capable of self-correction in the direction of homeostasis or runaway; self-correction implies trial and error
• to this add: architecture of logical types [Russell-Whitehead]

Implications / consequences include:
-- Mind is necessary & inevitable given above conditions; mind is immanent in the relevant complexity of communication; Paul in Galations, "God is not mocked"

-- The boundaries of a mind then are defined in terms of pathways for information (creatura) not in terms of bodies or physical attributes of system's various parts (pleroma), except insofar as these bodies correspond with pathways. The terms are an allusion to Jung's essay "Septem Sermones ad Mortuos"; likewise Bateson refers to a secret history of mind, drawing on familiar names but unfamiliar aspects of their thought (Samuel Butler, Carl Jung, Lamarck, Korzybski).

-- Vital role played by 'flexibility' or room for adaption on part of a system, allowing it to retain integrity across a range of changing stimuli / environmental constraints

-- Ideas are transforms of difference "out there", that is: outside the mind

-- Cybernetic explanation is a simulated form of mathematical proof; no other scientific explanation provides such a proof [401]

-- Cybernetic explanation is negative, not causal / positive explanation; that is, alternative outcomes are restrained, rather than a preferred outcome being selected [399]

-- Mammals are 'about' patterns more than about specific events or things. Distinct functional roles played by aniconic communication (verbal language) & iconic (kinesic & preverbal: body language, facial expression). Aniconic focus on items outside the self; iconic focus on relations between self and other minds. Iconic often become pathogenic when guided / determined by conscious purpose, precisely because consciousness always involves the possibility of trickery / semblance / dishonesty, and once this possibility is open, iconic language has no reliable means of independent affirmation. That is, I may say The cat is on the mat, and you may look for yourself and see if my words are corroborated by your own eyes. But when I say I love you, that assertion is not open to independent confirmation in the same way.


Evidently Bateson's characteristic examples were touchpoints as he returns to them in various essays, with varying amounts of detail or discussion depending perhaps on his thinking about them, or perhaps only as needed for the purpose of the specific essay. Intentionally or not, they are also comforting to see recur: the cat meowing for food best understood as saying not I love you but dependency; the mind defined by person-axe-tree; the house thermostat as rudimentary discussion of a governor; numerous others.

2014 reading paired with Dawkins to have a more detailed & firmer grasp of evolutionary biology. ( )
1 vote elenchus | Sep 21, 2014 |
This book changed the way I thought about humans and nature. I read it when I was in Japan. I still remember things about recognizing what is biological and how animals communicate. ( )
  yarkan | Jul 18, 2011 |
This is one of the two books that I credit with shaping my education, my major in college, my metaphysics, my entire view of life. (The other one, in case you are curious, is "Goedel, Escher, Bach" by Douglas Hofstadter.)

If you read and understand this book, it is not just a collection of essays on topics as disparate as schiophrenia, thermostats, entropy, and consciousness. It actually outlines a coherent metaphysics: a view of the world and the relationship of our consciousness to it.

And on top of all that, the "Metalogues" are just plain fun to read, too. ( )
2 vote GregStevens | Aug 1, 2009 |
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» Add other authors (6 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Bateson, GregoryAuthorprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Bateson, Mary CatherineForewordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Engel, MarkPrefacesecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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«L’ecologia della mente» scrive Bateson in apertura di questo volume, che contiene i suoi più importanti scritti teorici, «è una scienza che ancora non esiste come corpus organico di teoria o conoscenza». Ma questa scienza in formazione è nondimeno essenziale. Essa sola permette di capire, ricorrendo alle stesse categorie, questioni come «la simmetria bilaterale di un animale, la disposizione strutturata delle foglie in una pianta, l’amplificazione successiva della corsa agli armamenti, le pratiche del corteggiamento, la natura del gioco, la grammatica di una frase, il mistero dell’evoluzione biologica, e la crisi in cui oggi si trovano i rapporti tra l’uomo e l’ambiente». Non ci si lasci sviare dalla voluta paradossalità della formulazione: Bateson non è soltanto uno straordinario suscitatore di idee, ma l’autore di alcune capitali scoperte concrete. Basti pensare a quella del «doppio vincolo», che ha permesso di impostare in termini del tutto nuovi la questione della schizofrenia (influenzando in modo decisivo tutto il movimento antipsichiatrico) ed è diventata un punto di riferimento prezioso anche per gli epistemologi e i teorici della comunicazione. Ma questa pluralità dei livelli di applicazione vale in genere per le scoperte di Bateson, la cui prima caratteristica è di essere «spostabili» entro àmbiti molto distanti, accostando perciò realtà apparentemente irrelate, come varianti e manifestazioni locali di uno stesso ecosistema di idee. È uno dei presupposti di Bateson, infatti, che le idee siano in certo modo esseri viventi, soggette a una peculiare selezione naturale e a leggi economiche che regolano e limitano il loro moltiplicarsi entro certe regioni della mente. Un tale approccio sembra richiedere le qualità di uno scienziato rigoroso, che sia familiare con molte discipline, e quelle di una sorta di maestro Zen. Bateson, curiosamente, risponde appunto a questa descrizione. Antropologo di formazione, e autore di un libro classico, Naven, sugli Iatmul della Nuova Guinea, coinvolto fin dal 1942 nei primissimi sviluppi della cibernetica, psichiatra, e come tale ispiratore di una delle più vive scuole psichiatriche di oggi, la «scuola di Palo Alto», autore di ricerche sperimentali sulla comunicazione animale, epistemologo, studioso dei processi di evoluzione delle culture, Bateson ha in realtà perseguito durante tutta la sua vita una «scienza della mente e dell’ordine» verso cui il presente volume apre la via. Quanto alle sue qualità da maestro Zen, basterà leggere gli affascinanti «metaloghi» (origine dei Nodi di Laing) all’inizio di questo libro e seguirlo mentre ci mostra «perché le cose finiscono in disordine», per vedere come, con i più sottili e sofisticati strumenti della logica e dell’argomentazione, si possa arrivare a quella «domanda dietro le domande» cui accenna lo Zen. Che cos’è un «gioco»? Che cos’è l’ «entropia»? Che cos’è un «sacramento»? Queste domande venivano poste da Bateson ai partecipanti a un corso estemporaneo tenuto all’interno di un ospedale psichiatrico, a Palo Alto. In questo libro egli le pone, insieme con innumerevoli altre, a se stesso e ai suoi lettori e, passo per passo, guida alle risposte, che sono poi la base di altre domande. Così arriveremo, a volte, ad alcuni risultati che sono acquisiti e capitali, altre volte a ipotesi audaci in attesa di conferma. In ogni caso, però, avremo imparato un nuovo modo di pensare e di trattare le idee.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0226039056, Paperback)

Gregory Bateson was a philosopher, anthropologist, photographer, naturalist, and poet, as well as the husband and collaborator of Margaret Mead. With a new foreword by his daughter Mary Katherine Bateson, this classic anthology of his major work will continue to delight and inform generations of readers.

"This collection amounts to a retrospective exhibition of a working life. . . . 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, genetics, and communication theory. . . . He . . . examines the nature of the 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."—D. W. Harding, New York Review of Books

"[Bateson's] view of the world, of science, of culture, and of man is vast and challenging. His efforts at synthesis are tantalizingly and cryptically suggestive. . . .This is a book we should all read and ponder."—Roger Keesing, American Anthropologist

Gregory Bateson (1904-1980) was the author of Naven and Mind and Nature.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:25:47 -0400)

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