Gregory Bateson


British Ethnologist, Biologist, Systems Researcher, Anthropologist, Social Scientist, Linguist, Semiotician and Cyberneticist

Author Quotes

One of the interesting things that happen if you look at your hand and you consider it – not as a number of bananas on the end of some sort of flexible stick but as a nest of relations – is that you’ll find that the object looks much prettier than you thought it looked. Now this means that with a correction of our epistemology, you might find the world was greatly more beautiful than you thought it was.

The necessary ingredients for a double bind situation, as we see it, are: 1. Two or more persons. 2. Repeated experience. 3. A primary negative injunction. This may have either of two forms: (a) "Do not do so and so, or I will punish you", or (b) "If you do not do so and so, I will punish you". Here we select a context of learning based on avoidance of punishment rather than a context of reward seeking. 4. A secondary injunction con?icting with the ?rst at a more abstract level, and like the ?rst enforced by punishments or signals which threaten survival... Verbalization of the secondary injunction may, there-fore, include a wide variety of forms; for example, "Do not see this as punishment"; "Do not see me as the punishing agent"; "Do not submit to my prohibitions"; and so on. 5. A tertiary negative injunction prohibiting the victim from escaping from the ?eld.

Whatever the ups and downs of detail within our limited experience, the larger whole is primarily beautiful.

A major difficulty is that the answer to the Riddle of the Sphinx is partly a product of the answers that we already have given to the riddle in its various forms.

It is now empirically clear that Darwinian evolutionary theory contained a very great error in its identification of the unit of survival under natural selection. The unit which was believed to be crucial and around which the theory was set up was either the breeding individual or the family line of the subspecies or some similar homogeneous set of conspecifics. Now I suggest that the last hundred years have demonstrated empirically that if an organism or aggregate of organisms sets to work with a focus on its own survival and thinks that that is the way to select its adaptive moves, its “progress” ends up with a destroyed environment. If the organism ends up destroying its environment, it has in fact destroyed itself. And we may very easily see this process carried to its ultimate reductio ad absurdum in the next twenty years. The unit of survival is not the breeding organism, or the family line, or the society. The old unit has already been partly corrected by the population geneticists. They have insisted that the evolutionary unit is, in fact, not homogeneous. A wild population of any species consists always of individuals whose genetic constitution varies widely. In other words, potentiality and readiness for change is already built in to the survival unit. The heterogeneity of the wild population is already one half of that trial-and-error system which is necessary for dealing with the environment. The artificially homogenized populations of man’s domestic animals and plants are scarcely fit for survival. And today a further correction of the unit is necessary. The flexible environment must also be included along with the flexible organism because, as I have already said, the organism which destroys its environment destroys itself. The unit of survival is a flexible organism-in-its-environment.

Our initial sensory data are always "first derivatives," statements about differences which exist among external objects or statements about changes which occur either in them or in our relationship to them. Objects and circumstances which remain absolutely constant relative to the observer, unchanged either by his own movement or by external events, are in general difficult and perhaps always impossible to perceive. What we perceive easily is difference and change — and difference is a relationship.

The pretended physical philosophy of modern days strips Man of all his moral attributes, or holds them of no account in the estimate of his origin and place in the created world.

Whenever we pride ourselves upon finding a newer, stricter way of thought or exposition; whenever we start insisting too hard upon "operationalism" or symbolic logic or any other of these very essential systems of tramlines, we lose something of the ability to think new thoughts. And equally, of course, whenever we rebel against the sterile rigidity of formal thought and exposition and let our ideas run wild, we likewise lose. 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.

A relationship with no combat in it is dull, and a relationship with too much combat in it is toxic. What is desirable is a relationship with a certain optimum of conflict.

It is of first-class importance that our answer to the Riddle of the Sphinx should be in step with how we conduct our civilization, and this should in turn be in step with the actual workings of living systems.

Perhaps the attempt to achieve grace by identification with the animals was the most sensitive thing which was tried in the whole bloody history of religion.

The processes of perception are inaccessible; only the products are conscious and, of course, it is the products that are necessary.

Women watched for the spectacular performances of the men, and there can be no reasonable doubt that the presence of an audience is a very important factor in shaping the men's behavior. In fact, it is probable that the men are more exhibitionistic because the women admire their performances. Conversely, there can be no doubt that the spectacular behavior is a stimulus which summons the audience together, promoting in the women the appropriate behavior.

As a system of philosophy it is not like the Tower of Babel, so daring its high aim as to seek a shelter against God's anger; but it is like a pyramid poised on its apex.

It is to the Riddle of the Sphinx that I have devoted fifty years of professional life as an anthropologist.

Perhaps there is no such thing as unilateral power. After all, the man "in power" depends on receiving information all the time from outside. He responds to that information just as much as he "causes" things to is an interaction, and not a lineal situation.

The source of the new is the random.

You have probably been taught that you have five fingers. That is, on the whole, incorrect. It is the way language subdivides things into things. Probably the biological truth is that in the growth of this thing – in your embryology, which you scarcely remember – what was important was not five, but four relations between pairs of fingers.

But the myth of power is, of course, a very powerful myth, and probably most people in this world more or less believe in it. It is a myth, which, if everybody believes in it, becomes to that extent self-validating. But it is still epistemological lunacy and leads inevitably to various sorts of disaster.

It is, I claim, nonsense to say that it does not matter which individual man acted as the nucleus for the change. It is precisely this that makes history unpredictable into the future. The Marxian error is a simple blunder in logical typing, a confusion of individual with class.

Prediction can never be absolutely valid and therefore science can never prove some generalization or even test a single descriptive statement and in that way arrive at final truth.

The world partly becomes — comes to be — how it is imagined.

Criteria of Mind: 1) A mind is an aggregate of interacting parts or components. 2) The interaction between parts of mind is triggered by difference, and difference is a nonsubstantial phenomenon not located in space or time; difference is related to negentropy and entropy rather than energy. 3) Mental process requires collateral energy. 4) Mental process requires circular (or more complex) chains of determination. 5) In mental process, the effects of difference are to be regarded as transforms (i.e., coded versions) of events which proceeded them. The rules of such transformation must be comparatively stable (i.e., more stable than the content), but are in themselves subject to transformation. 6) The description and classification of these processes of transformation disclose a hierarchy of logical types immanent in the phenomena.

It’s easy to forget that when we find meaning in a story or enjoy the beauty of a piece of music, we are engaging in the realm of thinking that is most in sync with nature. Metaphor is the language of relationships, the language of natural systems, in which there is room to communicate in spectrums of possibility, instead of tightly defined cul-de-sacs.

Rather, for all objects and experiences there is a quantity that has an optimum value. Above that quantity, the variable becomes toxic. To fall below that value is to be deprived.

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British Ethnologist, Biologist, Systems Researcher, Anthropologist, Social Scientist, Linguist, Semiotician and Cyberneticist