tag: Philosophy



14
Jan 2013

The best we can do?

I didn’t hear the statement first hand, but I’m reliably informed that last Thursday on BBC Radio 4 a Tory MP (Andrew Bridgen, MP for North West Leicestershire) lamented the pitiful remuneration that he and his colleagues receive for the sterling work they’re doing to further impoverish Britain. By choosing a life of public service, he claims that MPs risk “foregoing Christmas presents for their children”. The basic salary for a member of the UK parliament is £65,738 (almost €80k). They also – as we now know in some detail – have a pretty generous expense account should that £65k prove insufficient. And their pension package is second-to-none.

Andrew Bridgen

Andrew “the poor are too rich
and the rich too poor” Bridgen MP

Now, let’s analyse that statement. The average salary in the UK is a little under £30k (approx €35k). Most of the people drawing that salary don’t have an expense account, generous or otherwise. And almost none of them have a pension plan that comes anywhere close to that of an MP. This leads us to one of three conclusions…

  1. The vast majority of people in the UK don’t get Christmas presents for their children (thank god for Santa, eh Mr. Bridgen?)
  2. The children of MPs either require or deserve more expensive gifts than the children of the plebs.
  3. Andrew Bridgen MP, and those other MPs for whom he is speaking, are terrible at managing their money and/or have more important things to spend 65 grand on than their children.

Alternatively, I suppose he could just be lying.

Of course, when taken out of context, Bridgen’s statement seems to paint him as an over-privileged, out-of-touch tosser of the first order. However, when placed into the proper context things look somewhat different. Because you see, his statement came the same week as his party carried out a singularly vicious attack on the living standards of the poorest Britons. In that context Bridgen’s statement no longer paints him as an out-of-touch tosser. In that context, his statement paints him as an evil bastard.

Oh, and don’t for a moment think he’s alone in this. Though other MPs might have the intelligence (and/or instinct for self-preservation) to refrain from making such offensive and crass statements in the national media; in private a large majority of them seem to concur with Bridgen. The majority of sitting MPs, when guaranteed anonymity, suggest that they deserve a pay-rise of more than 30%. Once again, let’s not forget this is against a backdrop of the majority of them voting for a cut (in real terms) of the income of those at the very bottom of society.

Those poor MPs

At the same time as Bridgen is whining about the terrible sacrifice he’s making by earning more than twice the national average (plus expenses), a magazine has published a list of British MPs earnings from the Gulf region. Gordon Brown pocketed a tidy quarter million dollars from his four speeches in the region in 2012. David Miliband fared less well with his paltry $230k. And the list goes on. These are sitting MPs remember… this is what they’re picking up despite the pesky distractions of public service.

There are people – and I’m sure Andrew Bridgen MP is one of them – who point to this as evidence that MPs are underpaid (“look how much we could be making…!”). But the notion that David Miliband would be getting paid $100k to give a speech in the Emirates if he wasn’t a prominent British MP is beyond absurd. Also, my mischievous side would like to point out to Bridgen that if he was any good at being an MP he’d probably be getting paid lots to give speeches in Kuwait along with the rest of them. Then his kids could have that diamond-encrusted Playstation they so clearly deserve. Turns out though, Bridgen just isn’t good enough to merit such “performance-related bonuses”. Which I guess means that as well as being an evil bastard and an over-privileged, out-of-touch tosser, he also happens to be bloody terrible at his job.

But of course that’s just the mischief in me. In reality I don’t think any MP should be earning a small fortune by making themselves available to wealthy vested-interests. Not only is £65k and a generous expense-account more than enough to live on; it’s also more than enough to ensure your kids have a good Christmas. Damn near everyone else manages on less.

There are generally two responses to this line of criticism (a line of criticism, let us not forget, that these people invite upon themselves when they start whinging on the radio about how difficult their life is). The first is that we need to pay the best salaries to ensure we get the best people. The second is that the whole subject is something of a distraction given how small the total expenditure on MP salaries is compared with the national budget. Let us conclusively examine and address both responses…

And by the way, let’s not kid ourselves that this is a British thing. It’s just as relevant here in Ireland (where, astonishingly, TDs get paid more than their British counterparts yet are just as eager to impose massive cuts on the income of the poor – all the while complaining about how “difficult” the decision to further impoverish the already impoverished is for them. For them.)

But we need The Best

This argument is also frequently used to defend the massive bonuses of bankers. And it’s really quite simple. The job of an MP/TD is extremely important. Therefore we need to make sure that the best people for the job will be attracted to it. We do this by incentivising them with large salaries. Otherwise these “best of the best” would find high paying jobs in the private sector and the nation would be in a far worse state.

The stream of colourful expletives that rises unbidden to my lips whenever I hear this argument would be enough to make even the most worldly of you blush, dear reader. It’s an argument that not only contains a basic (and blatant) fallacy, but is also at its core utterly misanthropic.

Firstly let’s deal with the misanthropy. Anyone who believes that “the best people” are currently sitting in the House of Commons in London, or The Dáil here in Dublin, must utterly loathe humanity. Because their opinion of the rest of us must be so incredibly low. Seriously, Andrew Bridgen MP… one of the best and brightest in Britain? I’d wager that were he enclosed with a handful of slightly slow chimpanzees, he’d struggle to emerge as one of the best and brightest in that room.

Yes, I know the idea is not to attract “the best people” but rather “the best people for the job”. But even that’s utter nonsense. Given the ungodly mess that these people are consistently making of running their countries, the argument becomes “the absolute best that humanity can achieve is a society that lurches from one crisis of mismanagement to the next”. I know there are plenty of people out there who possess such a relentlessly negative view of the human race that such a statement makes sense to them. I just think they’re wrong. I think we could do better if we had better people making the decisions. No, I’m not suggesting utopia is within our grasp – but I’m pretty sure we could manage a society where substantially less people were killed in wars, driven into poverty and oppressed by the powerful. It wouldn’t be perfect, but it’d be better than the unholy mess created by the Andrew Bridgens (or Eamon Gilmores) of this world.

At the moment Ireland’s unemployment rate is hovering around the 15% mark (it’s probably a fair bit higher than that, what with all the Job-bridge internships and Back-to-Work training schemes artificially suppressing the numbers). Our parliament – The Dáil – consists of 166 members, known as TDs. Now, having collected my winnings from my Andrew Bridgens / slow chimpanzees wager, let me place it all on another bet… given moderate resources, I wager I could find from within that 15% of the population who are currently unemployed, 166 people who would do a much better job at being a TD than the current crop. On top of that, I could find 166 of them who would be willing to do that job for half the salary.

That’s not hyperbole. No, I don’t personally know 166 unemployed people who would meet those criteria but I know enough people to understand that the vast majority of those who currently sit in The Dáil are not even “above average” at what they’re doing, let alone “the best”. And I know enough to know that the 400,000+ unemployed people in this country includes plenty of genuinely excellent ones.

Because – and this is where the fallacy in the statement “we need to attract the best by offering huge salaries” is revealed – the people who succeed in politics are not the best people to run a country. No, they are just the most manipulative, self-serving, hyper-ambitious, back-stabbing bastards willing to negotiate the appalling party political system. The best people to run a country would have a combination of skills and characteristics that included a genuine acceptance of the occasional need for self-sacrifice in pursuit of the common good, a broad compassion for their fellow men and women, excellent management and administration skills, an analytical mind capable of grasping and weighing up the potential consequences of any decision, the ability to communicate their ideas to a wide audience, a willingness to consider seriously alternative viewpoints and change their position where the evidence demands, and finally a thorough understanding of the history of political philosophy (allowing them to understand the difference between fashionable ideology and the long-term needs of a society). Yes, that’s a pretty lofty job specification, but it’s a pretty lofty job. And yes, those people do exist. Just not within the modern political system.

Fat Cats

It wasn’t perfect, but despite initial misgivings, everyone eventually agreed that firing the politicians and
putting a “different bunch of fat cats” in charge had resulted in the country being better run

What’s remarkable is that the modern party political system actively excludes people with many of those qualities. So don’t tell me that we have the best people for the job sitting in our houses of parliament. Hell, pick 166 random people from the register of unemployed and you’d probably get a marginal improvement. Add a half-decent selection process and you’d do even better. And no, I’m not arguing for a particular electoral system / selection process here – just railing against the nonsense of the “we need the best” argument when used to defend a system that excludes them.

If huge salaries attracted “the best people for the job” we would not have had a massive collapse in the banking sector. OK? So let’s put that ridiculous argument to bed once and for all.

It’s just a distraction

This is the other argument. It emerged most recently in the political expenses scandals. Given the billions lost in the financial crisis (by the best people for the job) and the debt crisis it has revealed, getting in a tizz about a few million euro in political salaries and expenses is silly, and it distracts us from more important issues.

Here’s the thing though. I happen to think that the type of people we have running our affairs is extremely relevant when it comes to these kinds of crises and the strategies we might use to solve them. If we have people motivated by personal greed, rampant ambition and a hunger for power… people who are willing to fiddle their expenses and cheat the public out of money they have no right to… people more interested in scoring petty party political points and making the other guy look “wrong” than they are in solving problems and making themselves “right”… people who go on the radio and insist that earning more than twice the national average is not enough to provide for their children, while simultaneously trying to reduce that national average… if we have those people in power then we’re basically screwed. Permanently.

It’s not a distraction to point that out. It’s not a distraction to point out that we need better people, and more than that, we need people who are willing to set aside personal greed for the greater good. If you don’t think there are 166 people in Ireland capable of that, then fair enough. But I think you’re wrong. I think we can do better. Because I think we are better.

2 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion


11
Feb 2012

On This Deity: The Death of René Descartes

Hey folks, I’ve got a new piece over at On This Deity.

11th February 1650: The Death of René Descartes.

Today, on the anniversary of his death in 1650, we remember the life and work of French philosopher and mathematician, René Descartes. Although not overtly political, the work of Descartes succeeded in redefining much of philosophical thought, to the extent that it would be more than fair to describe him as a revolutionary thinker. And while many of his ideas have antecedents in ancient Greece, Descartes can stake as firm a claim as anyone to the epithet, “father of modern philosophy”.

read the rest…

Leave a comment  |  Posted in: Announcements


2
Feb 2012

On This Deity: The Death of Bertrand Russell

This time last year, on the anniversary of Bertrand Russell’s death, I published a piece celebrating his life and work over at On This Deity. Russell is rightly remembered for his work – in collaboration with Alfred North Whitehead – on the three volumes of Principia Mathematica (the book has since passed into the public domain and can be downloaded as a very chunky PDF file if you so wish… it’s currently available on rapidshare, or alternatively do a search for “Principia Mathematica PDF”).

Bertrand RussellHowever, while Principia Mathematica doubtlessly secured his place in the ranks of the Great Philosophers, it’s a highly technical and specialised book about the relationship between mathematics and formal logic. I recall flicking through it when I was a philosophy undergraduate and instantly deciding that unless I spent the majority of my three year degree immersed entirely in Principia Mathematica, I wouldn’t do it justice. And given that I was, at the time, more interested in gaining a broad overview of philosophy, rather than focussing on a single narrow aspect of the subject, I read a few bits and pieces about Principia Mathematica in Hospers (and other similar volumes) and pretty much left it at that.

However, it wasn’t long before I encountered the name Bertrand Russell once more. This time it was while I was eagerly devouring books on political philosophy… in particular left wing and anarchist political philosophy. So while to this day I’ve still not gotten around to reading Principia Mathematica, Russell’s Proposed Roads To Freedom: Socialism, Anarchism and Syndicalism was one of the more influential books on my intellectual development. The full text of Proposed Roads… can be read over at the University of Virginia Library website and is worth your while checking out.

Sadly, as I suggested when I was talking about the work of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon recently, the hopes and dreams of Russell in that near-century-old text have been comprehensively ignored by a society which has dedicated itself to the attempted gratification of individual desire through over-consumption. Russell called upon us to overcome these baser instincts and push ourselves onwards, towards a more just and free world. But as he said in Proposed Roads… (echoing the views of Proudhon, half a century earlier) the use of violence to achieve supposedly enlightened ends is almost always self-defeating. The achievement of a better world “requires a breadth of outlook and a comprehensiveness of understanding which are not easy to preserve amid a desperate contest”.

Which is why, as well as being the author of one of the seminal works in logical philosophy, Russell is also remembered for being a dedicated peace campaigner. As a founder-member and the organisation’s first President, he gave the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) the intellectual legitimacy it needed to gain a critical mass. And even into his nineties he was active in the movement (as well as organising international opposition to America’s war in Vietnam). Russell firmly believed that humanity held within itself the ability to move past our aggressive selfishness. He saw clearly that violent competition in nature can be – and often is – tempered with a drive towards cooperation. And he felt that we have reached a point – thanks to technology and our global interconnectedness – where it has become imperative that this cooperative drive should now supersede our competitive instinct. Otherwise we risk destroying all we have achieved.

Russell was convinced that the overthrow of capitalism was necessary for us to achieve this evolution. But he was also convinced this could not be done with violence. At least, not if we wanted to replace it with something better. Of course, it’s difficult to see how it can be achieved non-violently, given how entrenched the power of the capitalists has become. However, as he was fond of saying… “we are obliged to give the matter some thought”.

1 comment  |  Posted in: Opinion


26
Jan 2012

An Ecology of Mind (film) – UK Tour

Gregory Bateson

Gregory Bateson

The name “Gregory Bateson” will be familiar to regular readers of this blog. It will also be familiar to a small number of academics who have studied his work in such disparate fields as anthropology, psychotherapy, communications theory, systems dynamics, linguistics, ecological science and biology.

Now, those who know Bateson’s work will have spotted the deliberate error in the above paragraph. It is of course the central thesis of Batesonian philosophy that these are not “disparate fields” at all. Our separation of these disciplines is entirely arbitrary and ultimately quite problematic. Though as he himself acknowledged, we do have to think about things separately simply because “it’s too difficult to think of everything at once”.

It’s one of the great tragedies of our times that Bateson’s work is so unfamiliar to so many people, and that his name is barely recognised even by the generally well-educated. Those who do know Bateson’s work (not all of them of course, but a significant majority of those I’ve met or read) count him among the most important thinkers of the past few hundred years. And they lament his relative lack of influence on a culture that could sorely use some wisdom and guidance. Reading his seminal collection of papers, Steps to an Ecology of Mind is a truly revelatory experience and anyone who does so with an open mind is likely to be profoundly changed by it. He sees – clearer than most – the fundamental flaws in how humanity interacts with the world of which it is a part. He doesn’t provide a set of solutions to our problems, for he denies our problems are of the kind that can be addressed using “a set of solutions”. Rather, he identifies our “way of thinking about the world” to be the central issue. Our entire epistemology is deeply flawed and it is leading us ever closer to disaster.

A simple example of this flawed epistemology; this failure to see the vital interconnections in the world around us; can be seen by examining the current European financial crisis. On the one hand, the IMF and EU are predicting that Ireland and Greece will overcome their problems so long as they act in a particular way and follow certain instructions. They predict certain rates of economic growth which, although modest, will be enough to get us out of trouble within a certain number of years so long as we privatise state assets and implement strict budgetary controls. On the other hand, both institutions have issued warnings (IMF, EU) about impending oil / resource depletion that are, if taken at face value, absolutely guaranteed to torpedo those growth projections. In the context of charitable donations, the advice of Jesus to “let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth” (Matthew 6:3) is certainly a worthy one. Unfortunately when it comes to matters of public policy, it’s a recipe for disaster.

Anyway, enough about that. My UK readers will – I hope – be interested to discover that the recent film about Bateson’s life and work (entitled, appropriately enough, “An Ecology of Mind“) is to be screened at several locations in the month of February. I’ve not yet seen the film, dear reader, but I nonetheless recommend you attend your nearest screening. Any film about Bateson’s work is surely a must-see. It’ll certainly be a more enriching experience than Transformers 7: The Car’s A Robot!

Currently the dates announced are:

  • Feb 13th, 2012Milton Keynes (Berrill Lecture Theatre, 7pm)
    Contact: Magnus Ramage at m.ramage @ open.ac.uk or telephone 01908 659 779
  • Feb 14th, 2012Hull (Hull University)
    Contact: Gerald Midgley at G.R.Midgley @ hull.ac.uk
  • Feb 15th, 2012Manchester (Chinese Art Centre, 6pm)
    Contact: David Haley at D.haley @ mmu.ac.uk or James Brady at James_gaia_project @ yahoo.co.uk
  • Feb 16th, 2012Manchester (MIRIAD, Manchester Metropolitan University, 2pm)
    Address: Room 104 Geoffrey Manton Building, All Saints Campus, Oxford Road, Manchester, M15
    Contact: David Haley at D.haley @ mmu.ac.uk or James Brady at James_gaia_project @ yahoo.co.uk
  • Feb 17th, 2012Glasgow (The Old Hairdressers, 7pm)
    Invited panel speakers: Nora Bateson, filmmaker; Carol Craig, author of The Tears that Built the Clyde; Torsten Lauschmann, artist; Nic Green, artist and ecological activist; Alastair Macintosh, Centre for Human Ecology
    Contact: Robert Thurm at galleryhair @ hotmail.co.uk or buy tickets at TicketWeb
  • Feb 20th, 2012Bradford (National Media Museum)
    Address: Pictureville Bradford, West Yorkshire BD1 1NQ
    Contact: Gail Simon at gailsimon @ clara.co.uk or telephone 0870 701 0200
  • Feb 21st, 2012Bristol (Arnolfini Gallery, 7:30pm)
    Address: 16 Narrow Quay, Bristol, BS1 4QA
    Contact: Nick Hart-Williams (Schumacher Society) at nick @ schumacher.org.uk or buy tickets from the Schumacher Society
  • Feb 22nd, 2012Dartington (Dartington Schumacher College, 8pm – Screening and discussion)
    Address: The Old Postern, Dartington, Totnes, Devon, TQ9 6EA
    Contact: Inga Page (Schumacher College) at Inga.Page @ schumachercollege.org.uk, telephone 01803 865 934 / 07813 802 508, or buy tickets from Schumacher College
  • Feb 23rd, 2012Edinburgh (Edinburgh College of Art – Screening and panel)
    Contact: Chris Fremantle at chris @ fremantle.org
  • Feb 24th, 2012Edinburgh (Edinburgh College of Art – Seminar / workshop with Nora Bateson)
    Contact: Chris Fremantle at chris @ fremantle.org
  • Feb 27th, 2012London (Premiere) (The Old Cinema)
    Invited panel speakers: Jody Boehnert (Ecological Literacy researcher, Brighton University / EcoLabs); Ranulph Glanville (Emeritus Professor, University College London / Independent academic / President of the American Society for Cybernetics); Peter Reason (Professor Emeritus, Centre for Action Research, Bath University / Ashridge Business School); Wendy Wheeler (Professor of English Literature & Cultural Inquiry, London Metropolitan Uni. / author of The Whole Creature: Complexity, Biosemiotics and the Evolution of Culture / Consulting Editor for Cybernetics and Human Knowing)
    Panellist and Chair: Dr. Jon Goodbun (Sr. Lecturer, Architecture, Uni. of Westminster, RCA & UCL)
    Contact: Jon Goodbun IMCC (Institute of Modern and Contemporary Culture) University of Westminster at jcgoodbun @ mac.com
    Co-organisers: Wallace Heim (home @ wallaceheim.com); Kevin Power – Centre for Action Research, Ashridge Business School (kevin.power @ btinternet.com); Eva Bakkeslett (bakkesle @ online.no)
    Buy tickets at Eventbrite
Trailer for An Ecology of Mind

4 comments  |  Posted in: Announcements


19
Jan 2012

Sorry Mr Proudhon, I’m afraid we learnt nothing

As the year moves on, another anniversary comes around. This time we pause to remember the death of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. Last year at this time I published a piece about Proudhon over at Dorian Cope’s wonderful site, On This Deity, and reading it back today I’m reminded of the sense of regret I felt as I wrote it.

Pierre-Joseph ProudhonBecause like so many of the great thinkers of yesteryear, the ideas of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon seem more relevant now than perhaps they ever were. I hesitate to suggest that his ideas are “timeless”, for doing so would hint at a fatalism to which I do not wish to give voice. Instead I’d prefer to imagine a future where Proudhon’s revolutionary philosophy is no longer required; a future in which the tyranny he sought to overthrow can no longer flourish.

The ideas of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon could only have been born in a time of oppression. And it is for that reason they feel so relevant today. It was Proudhon, the French revolutionary philosopher, who coined the word “anarchism” in the modern sense. And it was he who first self-applied that label insisting that political tyranny and economic tyranny went hand-in-hand… that one could not be overthrown without also confronting the other.

Proudhon’s most memorable line, “Property is theft”, cuts right to the heart of his philosophy. His greatest ideas were of a radical reconfiguration of the banking system as part of a peaceful overthrow of capitalism; ideas which surely came of age a long time ago. Yet still we struggle under the terrible weight of an inherently unjust system, seemingly willing to remain beholden to banks and other financial institutions whose interests do not coincide with our own. In a supposedly democratic society we allow unaccountable corporations trample us down, all the while assuming that it has to be this way. We seem unaware that we can cast off the yoke and try something new, if only we make that choice. Or if not something new, then perhaps something a century and a half old…

Manning the barricades and being involved in the fighting, Proudhon soon developed deep misgivings about the use of force to achieve political ends. “Whoever lays his hand on me to govern me,” he would write in 1849, “is a usurper and tyrant, and I declare him my enemy.” And he applied that maxim to revolutionary organisations just as he did to the forces of the establishment. He sincerely believed that economic revolution without bloodshed was possible through the self-organisation of workers into local co-operatives along with the establishment of a revolutionary not-for-profit banking system which would provide interest-free credit and levy only such charges as were required to cover administration costs. He believed that capitalism would wither and die without the need for violence should such a banking system, in tandem with a widespread co-operative movement, become established.

As we fall further towards indentured servitude and watch – with mild frustration but little active resistance – our rights being increasingly sidelined, should we not consider the ideas of Proudhon? Or at the very least, consider some alternative to the madness being perpetrated in the modern corridors of political and economic power?

2 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion


25
Jul 2011

Bateson of The Day

What the unaided consciousness (unaided by art, dreams, and the like) can never appreciate is the systemic nature of mind.

This notion can conveniently be illustrated by an analogy: the living human body is a complex, cybernetically integrated system. This system has been studied by scientists — mostly medical men — for many years. What they now know about the body may (aptly) be compared with what the unaided consciousness knows about the mind. Being doctors, they had purposes: to cure this and that. Their research efforts were therefore focused (as attention focuses the consciousness) upon those short trains of causality which they could manipulate, by means of drugs or other intervention, to correct more or less specific and identifiable states or symptoms. Whenever they discovered an effective “cure” for something, research in that area ceased and attention was directed elsewhere. We can now prevent polio, but nobody knows much more about the systemic aspects of that fascinating disease. Research on it has ceased or is, at best, confined to improving the vaccines.

But a bag of tricks for curing or preventing a list of specified diseases provides no overall wisdom. The ecology and population dynamics of the species has been disrupted; parasites have been made immune to antibiotics; the relationship between mother and neonate has been almost destroyed; and so on.

Characteristically, errors occur wherever the altered causal chain is part of some large or small circuit structure of system. And the remainder of our technology (of which medical science is only a part) bids fair to disrupt the rest of our ecology.

The point, however, which I am trying to make in this paper is not an attack on medical science but a demonstration of an inevitable fact; that mere purposive rationality unaided by such phenomena as art, religion, dream and the like, is necessarily pathogenic and destructive of life; and that its virulence springs specifically from the circumstance that life depends upon interlocking circuits of contingency, while consciousness can see only such short arcs of such circuits as human purpose may direct.

In a word, the unaided consciousness must always involve man in the sort of stupidity of which evolution was guilty when she urged upon the dinosaurs the common-sense values of an armaments race. She inevitably realized her mistake a million years later and wiped them out.

Unaided consciousness must always tend toward hate; not only because it is good common sense to exterminate the other fellow, but for the more profound reason that, seeing only arcs of circuits, the individual is continually surprised and necessarily angered when his hardheaded policies return to plague the inventor.

If you use DDT to kill insects, you may succeed in reducing the insect population so far that the insectivores will starve. You will then have to use more DDT than before to kill the insects which the birds no longer eat. More probably, you will kill off the birds in the first round when they eat the poisoned insects. If the DDT kills off the dogs, you will have to have more police to keep down the burglars. The burglars will become better armed and more cunning … and so on.

That is the sort of world we live in — a world of circuit structures — and love can survive only if wisdom (i.e., a sense or recognition of the fact of circuitry) has an effective voice.

Gregory Bateson | Style, Grace and Information in Primitive Art

Leave a comment  |  Posted in: Announcements


4
Jul 2011

Gregory Bateson bibliography and links

Gregory Bateson

Gregory Bateson

Just a quick follow-up to my latest post over at On This Deity for those who’d like to find out more about visionary intellectual, Gregory Bateson. Although his work is finally beginning to emerge from obscurity where it has unjustifiably languished for too long, it’s still not easy to track it all down (remarkably, some of his books are currently out of print!)

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.

Steps to an Ecology of Mind coverIt’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
    (published posthumously)
    with Mary Catherine Bateson
    The University of Chicago Press (1988). ISBN 978-0553345810.
  • A Sacred Unity: Further Steps to an Ecology of Mind
    (published posthumously)
    edited by Rodney E. Donaldson
    Harper Collins (1991). ISBN 0-06-250110-3.
  • Naven
    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**)

See also the Gregory Bateson page at the Institute of Intercultural Studies, plus check out this page on oikos.org which provides links to a number of Bateson’s articles reproduced online.

* 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.

Leave a comment  |  Posted in: Reviews » Book reviews


4
Jul 2011

4th July 1980 – The Death of Gregory Bateson

Why not pop over to On This Deity and read my new article.

4th July 1980: The Death of Gregory Bateson.

There is no shortage of events to remember on July 4th. So I’m extremely pleased that On This Deity finds room today to celebrate the life and commemorate the death of Gregory Bateson. The first time I encountered Gregory Bateson’s name, he was described to me as “the most important thinker you’ve never heard of”. And that’s the description I tend to use when recommending his work to others. Because although his ideas have indeed been influential, and despite the fact that his work is finally beginning to leak into popular consciousness, the fact remains that the vast majority of educated, informed people are wholly unfamiliar with Bateson and his legacy.

Which is perhaps no big surprise; for unlike most of the revolutionary thinkers who have graced this site over the past eleven months, it is my contention that Bateson’s time has yet to come. His seminal work, Steps to an Ecology of Mind sits comfortably on the same shelf as Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams, Marx’s Das Kapital, Einstein’s Relativity or Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. The primary difference being that the cultural impact of Steps to an Ecology of Mind is still ahead of us. For it seems clear to me that should modern humanity survive the crises that seem certain to confront us this century, it will be by adopting the kind of thinking to be found in the work of Bateson.

read the rest…

Leave a comment  |  Posted in: Announcements


27
Jun 2011

On This Deity: 27th June 1905

My new piece is up at On This Deity.

27th June 1905: The Founding of The Industrial Workers of the World.

It is late June 2011 as I write this. The news media – on the rare occasions it’s not discussing the sex lives of professional sportsmen – offers us a running commentary on an Arab Spring, now turned summer. We’re presented with images of disaffected Chinese workers rioting in Guangdong while dissidents with pixelated faces hold secret meetings in cramped apartments. In Peru an alliance between environmental campaigners and indigenous activists has seen its members injured and even killed in an attempt to prevent an expansion of mining in their region. And here, in the relative safety of our liberal democracies, we find ourselves dismayed by the violence, the oppression and the painful struggle for basic rights playing out on our screens and newsprint. And we often forget – because it’s so damned easy to do – just how recently our own nations experienced similar upheaval. And we don’t realise – as the forces of capitalism once again begin to squeeze the worker, marginalise the army of unemployed and bind entire nations with chains of debt – just how close to a return to those days we are, and just how cheaply our acquiescence in this return is being purchased.

One hundred and six years ago today, on June 27th 1905, a couple of hundred anarchists, socialists and vagabond activists gathered in a hall in Chicago for what would later become known as the First Annual Convention of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). Like activists in China, Peru, North Africa and elsewhere today they would find themselves targeted by the authorities, imprisoned and even murdered for the crime of disagreeing with those in power. They spoke out. They organised their dissent. Sometimes they withheld their labour. Often they demanded radical change. They united beneath a simple slogan, “An injury to one is an injury to all”… a worldview simply incompatible with free-market capitalism; a philosophy which happily externalises all manner of injury in the pursuit of personal gain; a philosophy that dismisses collective responsibility unless there’s a profit to be made commodifying it.

read the rest…

Leave a comment  |  Posted in: Announcements


31
May 2011

On This Deity: 31st May 1996

Check out my new piece over at On This Deity.

31st May 1996: The Death of Timothy Leary.

At 12:44am on the 31st of May 1996, Dr. Timothy Leary sat bolt upright in bed startling the small group of friends and family who had gathered to keep him company during his final days. He had been diagnosed with inoperable prostate cancer the previous year and it had finally run its course. “Why not?” he asked those keeping vigil. Again, louder, “Why not?” He repeated the question a third time. “Why not?” Then, lying back down, Dr. Leary whispered his final word… “beautiful”… and slipped into death. He was 75 years old.

read the rest…

Leave a comment  |  Posted in: Announcements