An alternative reading of Western intellectual traditions and development

Empowering Weak & Oppressed

Rahhalah Haqq

Dhu al-Qa'dah 22, 1421 2001-02-16

Book Review

by Rahhalah Haqq (Book Review, Crescent International Vol. 29, No. 24, Dhu al-Qa'dah, 1421)

STEPS TO AN ECOLOGY OF THE MIND by Gregory Bateson, with a new foreword by Mary Catherine Bateson. Pub: University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, 2000. Pp: 533. Pbk. US$18.

As the 21st Western century dawned, the Eurocentric civilization found itself hoping for something new, but remained mired in the same old world of the 19th and 20th centuries. From rabid romantic nationalism and decaying industrial capitalism to voracious resource-consumption and wanton environmental destruction, Western man seems unable to escape the creations of his own mind and manifestations of his own unbridled appetites around him.

While some have attempted to solve these problems with one or another form of vulgar materialism, including various forms of Marxist thought and socialism, others have recognized that these ‘alternative visions’ embody the same intractable pathologies as their kindred systems of liberalism and capitalism. Outside the Western world, of course, there are many truly alternative visions, but given the Westoxication of so many peoples it seems that, at least for the time being, thinkers will continue to look Westward not only for problems but also for their solutions, or at least alleviation.

Given this state of affairs, some maverick Western thinkers might prove useful for understanding the current state of world affairs and for looking at these problems in ways that might also contain their multiple solutions. In other words, as long as non-Western peoples are looking to the West for answers, they might as well take advantage of the truly challenging and stimulating thinkers, especially those who are in many ways ahead of their time. Essential reading in this context includes, for example, Barbara McClintock (biology), Emmanuel Velikovsky (archaeology), and Joseph Weizenbaum (computer science).

But any compilation of maverick thinkers in the West would be incomplete without Gregory Bateson. Trained as an anthropologist, Bateson is well known for his work in several fields, including psychology, management and cybernetics. Because of his wide-ranging interests and influences, his work is difficult to grasp in its entirety. Steps to an Ecology of Mind, originally published in 1972 but now available again after being out of print for many years, is a useful and handy collection of several short essays describing Bateson’s ideas.

Although his work is still largely unknown, to some observers Gregory Bateson was one of the most influential social and natural scientists of the 20th Western century. He was a vociferous opponent of reductionist science, which saw reality only in terms of matter, and his work helped to reunite subject and object in scientific inquiry by writing mind and thought back into the methodologies of science. But Bateson was no spiritualist either, despite his being claimed in some quarters of the New Age movement, for he firmly believed that mind was an integral part of a broader “material reality,” and that it was simply wrong-headed to regard mind as separate from matter.

Each essay in this important collection brings out new ways of thinking. For example, working with his colleagues in computer science and other related fields, such as Gordon Paks and Norbert Weiner, Bateson helped to develop and elaborate upon the science of cybernetics. He explores this form of systems-thinking in the 1966 lecture ‘From Versailles to Cybernetics,’ in which he masterfully links these two seemingly disparate topics into an interesting train of thought. Arguing that the Treaty of Versailles (1919) was a turning-point in modern Western history, in which the West abandoned all hope of moral and ethical conduct, and that in it lie the seeds of many contemporary problems, he then describes the cybernetic revolution of the mid-century and explains how systems-thinking allows one to make overlapping and intertwined connections between the past, present and future.

Elsewhere, Bateson explores epistemology, taking issue with the limitations of Cartesian and Newtonian thought. He illustrates how committed Western man is to unexamined epistemologies by asking readers to ponder their hand, fingers outstretched. People limited to a Cartesian and Newtonian epistemology, which compartmentalizes knowledge by dividing subject and object, will see ‘five fingers.’ But Bateson quickly shows that this is only one way to ‘see’ a human hand, noting that with a biological epistemology it makes much more sense to see “four branching off points,” noting those connective patterns between the fingers.

Stemming from his interest in mind and nature, Bateson broke new ground by examining the logical thought of living and non-living things. The collection takes its name from the concept of “ecology of mind,” which states that mind is immanent in systems and not isolated to individual locations. Pre-dating computer science in many ways, Bateson illustrates the concept by asking readers to imagine a man felling a tree, and noting that each blow of the axe transmits information to the tree, which in turn transmits information to the eye of the axeman, who then judges where to place the next blow, and so on in this oft-cited example of systems-thinking and the immanence of mind within.

Bateson’s ideas have been adopted by ecologists and historians alike, and the collection includes important essays on these topics, including ‘Conscious Purpose versus Nature’ and ‘The Logical Categories of Learning and Communication.’ Social workers have built upon other aspects of his thought, laid out in papers such as ‘The Cybernetics of Self’ and ‘Social Planning and the Concept of Deutero Learning.’ Bateson was also critical of psychoanalysis and therapy, and so he developed his own “double-bind theory of schizophrenia.” From organizational development to linguistics, many academic disciplines can receive a breath of fresh air from Bateson’s various works.

This brief review only suggests a few of the complex but always enlightening ideas of this often under-appreciated maverick in the Western world. Gregory Bateson’s work turns much of the Western tradition on its head, and his ideas continue to challenge modernist Western thinking while simultaneously enticing post-modernists. But Bateson was neither, his work being too sophisticated for such either/or types of classification, and Steps to an Ecology of Mind should be read by anyone infatuated with the Western intellectual tradition, at least to obtain glimpses of a few alternative perspectives and radically different ways of thought.

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