Gregory. Steps To An Ecology of Mind. 1972. Chicago: U. of Chicago
Steps To An Ecology of Mind is a collection of lectures and essays
from Bateson’s career, ranging widely in topics from philology and evolution, to
genetics and anthropology. Bateson is generally interested in deep
structures and patterns (rather than substances); though it’s
difficult to synthesize, his concern with form and epistemology
surface repeatedly in his work. If a larger point can be summarily gleaned
from this collection, it involves the dramatic changes to epistemology
wrought by cybernetics and information theory.
In select pieces, Bateson is especially forthright about this
"Epistemology of Cybernetics" (this, a subsection in his essay on "A
Cybernetics of ‘Self’: A Theory of Alcoholism" (309)). In "Epistemology of
Cybernetics," Bateson discusses a phenomenon that resembles distributed
cognition in which mind, his term of terms, coalesces in brain,
body, and environment: "Similarly, we may say that ‘mind’ is
immanent in those circuits of the brain which are complete within the brain. Or
that mind is immanent in circuits which are complete within the system, brain
plus body. Or, finally, that mind is immanent in the larger
system–man plus environment" (317). To explain this concept,
Bateson uses the example of a man cutting a tree with an axe. The total
system of "tree-eyes-brain-muscles-axe-stroke-tree" "has the characteristics
of immanent mind" (317).
These ideas are most germane to the exam on tools-in use: ecologies and
affordances. They receive further elaboration and clarification an essay
near the end of the book called "Form, Substance, and Difference" (454),
in which Bateson seeks out ways to discuss "organism plus environment"
(455). He contends that epistemology has shifted because of cybernetics and
information theory, and that rather than turning to hard science for
explanations of human psychology and behavior (458), we must understand the
co-adaptive complex systems of the human individual, the society,
and the ecosystem (435). In this chapter, he notes that the relationship
between thought and emotion (469) must be revisited in light of his view of
epistemology. Also, in the end-note, he mentions that mind includes
actions and tools (473). Here are two of the more pithy quotations that connect
the chapter to methodological delineations (the limits of systems) and the
scalability of mind (its multiple rings of immanence):
- "The way to delineate the system is to draw the limiting line in
such a way that you do not cut any of these pathways in ways which
leave things inexplicable" (465).
- "The cybernetic epistemology which I have offered you would suggest
a new approach. The individual mind is immanent but not only in the body. It
is immanent also in the pathways and messages outside the body; and there is a
larger Mind of which the individual mind is only a subsystem" (467).
Key Terms: ecology of mind (xxiii), ecology of ideas (xxiii), metalogue (1),
outlines (27), analogy and homology (80), "feel" of culture (81), ethos and
cultural structure (83), deutero-learning (167), transcontextual (272), feedback
loops (274), governor (316), territory and map (455)
"The questions which the book raises are ecological: How do ideas
interact? Is there some sort of natural selection which determines the survival
of some ideas and the extinction or death of others? What sort of economics
limits the multiplicity of ideas in a given region of the mind? What are the
necessary conditions for stability (or survival) of such a system or subsystem?"
"In fact, the phenomenon of context and the closely related phenomenon
of ‘meaning’ defined a division between the ‘hard’ sciences and the sort of
science which I was trying to build" (xxv).
"I stressed the fact that ‘data‘ are not events or objects but always
records or descriptions or memories of events or objects" (xxv).
"Be that as it may, the central–but usually not explicit–subject matter of
the lectures which I used to give to psychiatric residents and of these essays
is the bridge between behavioral data and the ‘fundamentals’ of science and
philosophy; and my critical comments above about the metaphoric use of ‘energy’
in the behavioral sciences add up to a rather simple accusation of many of my
colleagues, that they have tried to build the bridge between form and substance.
The conservative laws for energy and matter concern substance rather than form.
But mental process, ideas, communication, organization, differentiation,
pattern, and so on, are matters of form rather than substance.
Within the body of fundamentals, that half which deals
with form has been dramatically enriched in the last thirty years by the
discoveries of cybernetics and systems theory. This book is concerned with
building a bridge between the facts of life and behavior and what we know today
about the nature of pattern and order" (xxxii).
"As I see it, the advances in scientific thought come from a
combination of loose and strict thinking, and this combination is the
most precious tool of science" (75).
"All biological systems (organisms and social or ecological organizations of
organisms) are capable of adaptive change. But adaptive change takes many forms,
such as response, learning, ecological succession, biological evolution,
cultural evolution, etc., according to the size and complexity of the system
which we choose to consider" (274).
"The weaving of contexts and of messages which propose contexts–but
which, like all messages whatsoever, have ‘meaning’ only by virtue of
context–is the subject matter of the so-called double-bind theory"
"Thus, in no system which shows mental characteristics can any part have
unilateral control over the whole. In other words, the mental characteristics
of the system are immanent, not in some part, but in the whole" (316).
"In a word, schizophrenia, deutero-learning, and the double
bind cease to be matters of individual psychology and become part of the
ecology of ideas in systems or ‘minds’ whose boundaries no longer coincide
with the skins of participant individuals" (339).
"Similarly, from the cybernetic point of view, a word in a sentence, or a
letter within the word, or the anatomy of some part within an organism, or the
role of a species in an ecosystem, or the behavior of a member within a
family–these are all to be (negatively) explained by an analysis of
"All that is not information, not redundancy, not form and not restraints–is
noise, the only possible source of new patterns" (416).
"Occasionally actual pieces of the external environment—scraps
of potential nest-building material, ‘trophies,’ and the like–are used
for communication, and in these cases again the messages usually contribute
redundancy to the universe message plus the relationship between the
organisms rather than to the universe message plus external
"I refer to the ‘semipermeable’ linkage between consciousness and the
remainder of the total mind. A certain limited amount of information about
what’s happening in this larger part of the mind seems to be related to what we
may call the screen of consciousness. But what gets into
consciousness is selected; it is a systematic (not random) sampling of the rest"
"The unit of survival is a flexible organism-in-its-environment"