In 1972, I was reading The Whole Earth Catalogue and came upon a mention of Steps to an Ecology of Mind, a collection of Gregory Bateson's essays, talks, and scientific papers. Stewart Brand's writing about Bateson convinced me that reading Steps would change my life. Boy was he right.
Bateson was not easy to follow or to comprehend. John Brockman, in his book About Bateson puts it this way:
Bateson’s readers often find it difficult to grasp that his way of thinking is different from theirs. His students believe that he is hiding something from them, that there’s a secret behind his thinking that he won’t share. There’s something to this. Bateson is not clearly understood because his work is not an explanation, but a commission, As Wittgenstein noted, “a commission tells us what we must do.” In Bateson’s case, what we must do is reprogram ourselves, train our intelligence and imagination to work according to radical configurations. Heinz Von Foerster points out that “the blessed curse of a meta-language is that it wears the cloth of a first-order language, an ‘object language.’ Thus, any proposition carries with it the tantalizing ambiguity: Was it made in meta or in object language?” Nobody, knows and you can’t find out. All attempts to speak about a meta-language, that is, to speak in meta-meta-language, are doomed to fail. As Wittgenstein observed: “Remain silent!” But Bateson cannot remain silent. His childlike curiosity, his intellectual vigor and strength compel him to continue exploring new ground.
As I struggled my way through Bateson’s book. I began to learn a new language and to get glimpses of a new cosmology. I began to be able to think in terms of relationships rather than individuals, to parse the world in terms of change and flow rather than fixedness and stability, to value complexity over simplicity. I began to read philosophy and history for fun.
My further reading has led me into the realms of poststructuralist thinking, particularly in the writings of Michel Foucault, about whom anyone following this blog hears probably more than they want. But Bateson’s ideas continue to be foundational in how I think about things. I find a set of ideas he published as “Every Schoolboy Knows,” very useful. I will be interested to learn if others find them as clear and foundational as I do. Bateson changed my cosmology. I continue to like the change. It’s not often in a lifetime that happens.