Aug 2006

Steps to an Ecology of Mind

We may joke about the way misplaced concreteness abounds in every word of psychoanalytic writing – but in spite of all the muddled thinking that Freud started, psychoanalysis remains as the outstanding contribution, almost the only contribution to our understanding of the family – a monument to the importance and value of loose thinking.

Experiments in Thinking About Observed Ethnological Material | Gregory Bateson

There’s a collection of Bateson’s papers and essays which I’ve already mentioned a couple of times on this blog. It’s called Steps to an Ecology of Mind and I recommend you track it down with all haste, dear reader. It ranks up there with Einstein’s Ideas and Opinions as one of the most important collections of writings of the 20th century.

Like Ideas and Opinions, Bateson’s papers are sometimes far from the cutting edge of the subject they address (the earliest being over 70 years old now). But he writes with a similar piercing clarity and wisdom to Einstein and so provides a deep yet rounded understanding of his subject. He demonstrates methodologies and ways of thinking, rather than merely providing information.

For instance, the article Cybernetic Explanation cleared up a rather abstract area of confusion that had bugged me since university – but that I’d never been able to elucidate – regarding proof by reductio ad absurdum. And while his essay Style, Grace, and Information in Primitive Art may not contain the most up-to-date theories on primitive art (being almost 40 years old), it nonetheless forced me to re-evaluate some of my beliefs about the nature of consciousness and of human psychology.

No mean feat for an essay about cave paintings.

Steps to an Ecology of Mind

And it’s fair to say that it’s my views on psychology that have been most influenced by Bateson. Probably the most mind-blowing essay – for me – is Morale and National Character. In it Bateson very clearly presents the reasons why it’s not only legitimate to view and analyse nations using the tools of psychology, but why those tools are actually far better suited to that task than they are to the task of analysing the individual.

This was like an explosion going off in my mind. For years I’ve been of the opinion that what cognitive theorist Douglas Hostadter (dunno if he coined the phrase, but he’s where I first read it) calls “emergent intelligence” plays a far more significant role in the behaviour of corporations, institutions and nations… any large, organised group of people in fact… than is acknowledged.

Not only that, but I’ve always felt that although the tools of modern psychoanalysis are often too blunt to deal with the absurd complexity of individual human consciousness, that they actually have great relevance when examining the motivations and behaviour of the infintely simpler consciousnesses of groups of people.

Incidentally, there may be those who are a little puzzled by the idea that an individual human consciousness would be significantly more complex than a consciousness consisting of multiples of those individuals. It seems vaguely counter-intuitive. But actually the complexity of a consciousness is primarily (though not entirely) a factor of the number of constituent members (or “neurons”). The internal complexity of each individual neuron is a far smaller factor, though conversely it is a far larger factor in the likelihood of systemic failure (mental illness).

All of this seemed to make perfect sense to me… and whenever I applied my theory to the world, it appeared to work. The larger the organisation, the more prone to irrationality and dysfunction it becomes as the collective instabilities in the constituent members get amplified. Two perfect examples being, of course, globalised capitalism and modern China which have both descended into extreme psychosis… in the sense that they are unable to function sustainably in the environment in which they find themselves; the real world.

However, I’ve long become suspicious of assuming that just because something made perfect sense to me, that it did – in fact – make perfect sense. Too often have I been greeted with blank incomprehension as I explained why something obviously had to be a certain way. So it’s a joy to read an essay like Morale and National Character and discover that not only is someone thinking about the world in exactly the same way as you (albeit drawing different conclusions on occasion), but they can explain succinctly just why this way of thinking about the world is so very informative and so very valuable.

Anyways, I didn’t want to write a traditional review of this book as it’s far from a traditional book. I thought instead I’d explain just why it’s so important to me, and why I think anyone interested in anthropology, psychiatry, psychology, evolution, the history and function of art, epistemology or what it means to be human should read this important collection.

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