Bateson’s work covered a host of different disciplines and the primary text for anyone who seeks to learn more about this revolutionary thinker is his collection of essays, Steps to an Ecology of Mind. This book, at least, is currently in print and can be found in most good bookshops as well as in a number of online retailers. You can, of course, head over to Amazon and get it there where it will cost you a couple of quid less than if you were to buy it at – for example – Housmans. The reason you might want to spend that extra couple of pounds is explained on this page, What is wrong with using Amazon? Anyhoo, if you need to save some cash (and these days many of us do) then just search Amazon for the book. Alternatively use Housmans, or better yet your local independent bookstore, to get hold of Steps to an Ecology of Mind.
It’s worth stressing that Steps to an Ecology of Mind is simultaneously a frustrating and a rewarding read. Some of the essays are engaging and immediately illuminating, while others can be dry, technical and requiring of no little effort. And some essays manage to veer from one to the other (and back again). The book is split into six different sections and while it’s not strictly in chronological order, his later work (arguably when it all starts to coalesce into a singular coherent vision) can be found in the last two sections.
Part I (Metalogues) consists of a series of metalogues (imaginary conversations between Bateson and his daughter) which each illustrate a particular point, both in the content and the structure of the metalogue. They have titles such as Why Do Things Get in a Muddle?, What Is an Instinct? and Why a Swan? and together provide a wonderful introduction to many of the themes explored later in the book – though their easy accessibility is perhaps a little deceptive given what is to come!
Part II (Form and Pattern in Anthropology) covers – more or less – his anthropological work, though bear in mind that much of the point of the book is to demonstrate the interconnections between different systems, and one of the central essays in Part II is Morale and National Character which casts an anthropological eye over western cultures and would, therefore, be located by many people within sociology. It is within this section that Bateson’s “schismogenesis” concept is discussed and explained. He also covers Game Theory and makes his first tentative steps into cybernetics in Part II.
Part III (Form and Pathology in Relationship) covers, among other things, his double-bind theory of schizophrenia and his psychotherapeutic work. It also deals with his concept of “deuterolearning” (learning to learn) which is hugely important for our understanding of ourselves and the world. When properly applied, Bateson’s work on deuterolearning reveals why, for example, the type of militant atheism practiced by Richard Dawkins and others is ultimately self-defeating, and why consumer capitalism is so insidious and will prove so very difficult to counteract. As well as this, Part III covers communications theory and his Theory of Play.
Part IV (Biology and Evolution) contains, in my view, two of the most difficult pieces; The Role of Somatic Change in Evolution and A Re-examination of “Bateson’s Rule”; though this may be down to the fact that I’ve read very little else on the subject of biological science so many of the technical terms were unfamiliar to me. This section also includes a paper outlining the conclusions he drew from his work on dolphins with John C. Lilly.
Part V (Epistemology and Ecology) is where everything starts to be explicitly drawn together, though the interconnections are implicit in the previous sections. Along with Part VI (Crisis in the Ecology of Mind), this section essentially presents the reader with Bateson’s philosophy. Essays such as Conscious Purpose versus Nature, Pathologies of Epistemology and The Roots of Ecological Crisis contain, simply put, some of the most visionary writing I have ever encountered.
Beyond Steps to an Ecology of Mind, Gregory Bateson published several other books. Below is a complete bibliography listed not in chronological or alphabetical order, but in order of importance. This is, therefore, a purely subjective order and shouldn’t be taken as gospel (also, I’ve not managed to get hold of the last two books on the list, so they are there by default).
Gregory Bateson bibliography
- Steps to an Ecology of Mind
The University of Chicago Press (1972, 2000). ISBN 0-226-03905-6.
- Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity
Hampton Press (1979, 2002). ISBN 1-57273-434-5.
- Angels Fear: Towards an Epistemology of the Sacred
with Mary Catherine Bateson
The University of Chicago Press (1988). ISBN 978-0553345810.
- A Sacred Unity: Further Steps to an Ecology of Mind
edited by Rodney E. Donaldson
Harper Collins (1991). ISBN 0-06-250110-3.
Stanford University Press (1936, 1958). ISBN 0-804-70520-8.
- Balinese Character: A Photographic Analysis
with Margaret Mead
New York Academy of Sciences (1942). ISBN 0-890-72780-5.
- Communication: The Social Matrix of Psychiatry
with Jurgen Ruesch
W.W. Norton & Company (1951). ISBN 0-393-02377-X.
There’s also a host of books available that draw heavily on Bateson’s work for inspiration, as well as others that directly address and expand upon it. This page at The Institute for Intercultural Studies contains a detailed list.
An Ecology of Mind: The film
Gregory Bateson’s youngest daughter, Nora, has recently completed a film about the life and work of her father. Entitled – appropriately enough – An Ecology of Mind, the film is currently doing the rounds on the festival circuit as well as getting a limited number of screenings in academic and independent settings. I’ve not seen it yet (come to Dublin, please!) so may have to await the DVD release. But if it’s showing anywhere near you, then do pop along.
Bateson is also partly the inspiration for the central character in a novel by Tim Parks called Dreams of Rivers and Seas, though I confess I’ve not read it so I can’t really comment on either the portrayal of “Bateson” or on the quality of the novel as a whole (though it did receive positive reviews).
He’s name-checked – and his ideas are extensively discussed – in the independent German* film, Mindwalk, from 1990 (note: it’s an English language film for subtitle-phobes). Personally I enjoyed it and found it engaging, but it’s far from A Great Film. Recommended, though not essential viewing.
And some final links
There are a few recordings of Bateson lectures that I’ve managed to track down (not nearly enough, sadly). I highly recommend checking them out when you have a couple of hours to spare…
- Lecture on consciousness and psychopathology (Part 1)
- Lecture on consciousness and psychopathology (Part 2)
- Lecture on Orders of Change (Part 2**)
* Bateson’s work is far better appreciated and well known in Germany than elsewhere for reasons I’m unable to explain
** I can’t for the life of me track down Part 1 of this lecture. If anyone has a copy, please point me towards it.