Dec 8th: An Ecology of Mind (Gregory Bateson)

Start Forums Courses Current Debates and Themes in Global Environmental History Dec 8th: An Ecology of Mind (Gregory Bateson)

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December 9, 2014 at 12:07 #15701

Reflection on Nora Bateson (2010): An Ecology of Mind

In the following I would like to reflect on the advantages and the limitations of Gregory Bateson’s idea that we always draw lines when we think as modern human beings.

“Mad men see outlines, and that’s why they draw them”
I think everyone can agree with Gregoy Bateson’s main idea: the interconnectedness of the world and that the modern human started to draw lines between it in order to be able to grasp and make use of it. And I guess everyone will agree that more ecological, “connected” thinking is needed to cope with the many social and ecological problems individuals, groups and societies are facing. Although his work seems to be quite complex Bateson’s vivid examples are eye-opening: in the way that one finger can not do anything if not related to a set of other ones – which constitute a functioning hand all together. The same goes with the graphic shape that gets divided into several pieces in order to be calculated: one can only think about the “divisions” (we really call them like that!) between university disciplines. Although all the subjects we are occupied with in academia are parts of one big system of living beings we treat it separately, creating individual ontologies, epistemologies, semantics and let’s not forget, identities (which historian wants to be scientist?). Even the idea of interdisciplinarity gets trapped in the same way: we still draw our lines but talk about what we are doing “behind” them and why do it. A “Batesonian” approach to academia might be transdisciplinarity: aiming at one holistic analysis of the world (note the “whole” in holistic – implying no lines) and rather creating one set of ontologies, epistemologies and semantics a group of scholars or researchers can work with. That has not happened with Environmental History I have the feeling – but at least everyone of us has a slight or even strong suspicion of everything that tries to fix meaning about the living and the non-living world, humans and nature, anthropocentrism and biocentrism. Such an ethos can be the grain out of which a transdisciplinary flower can grow sometime, let’s see 😉

“The major problems of the world are the result of the difference between how nature works and how we think about it”
As much as more ecological thinking is needed and welcome – I also think that there exist serious limitations of that. Was not the fact that we distinguish us from nature what makes us “human”? And not the fact that we distinguish between ourself what makes us a “society” (think of labor division as a distinctive feature of every civilization)? If we would erase these two lines we would be part of that big living system that would not be nature anymore but something else with no name because we wouldn’t be able to construct in any similar way anymore. Indeed what Bateson is conceiving in the quote above could be the summary of every “treehuger’s” programme. But does that mean that we are doomed as a group of living beings which thinks and acts in division to all others? I do not think so. Who says that we can only imagine a way of being that draws or that does not draw any lines? Does the line need to be clear or can it be dotted as well? The last idea gives me hope: as we humans have always drew lines we should think of how tight we want to do that. In one instance we can think of ourselves as non-distinguished from nature, in terms of the planning and constituting of societies that are “sustainable”, “resilient” whatsoever. But in another instance we could or I would say even should see ourselves as quite individual and human: because we invented ways to be not in the same struggle for survival as animals and our ancestors were, through technology and collaboration in its broadest sense. The question then is not how can we achieve a life with all other beings or just “among us” – it entails the search for the “good life”, something only us humans can conceive in order to continue dwelling in the world. That is what gives me hope at least.

December 10, 2014 at 18:54 #15705

Not a reply, but my reflections, as I don’t know how to enter my reflections.
“An Ecology of Mind” and Nora Bateson: Reflections on the film about Gregory Bateson and his philosophy about a holistic view on the interconnection between all living matter. The idea compromises topics such as systems and chaotic theories, genetics, anthropology, cross-species behavior and communication. He also devoted a lot of time on genetics and andante-eugenics.
It is a beautiful film made by his youngest daughter. I would say that it primarily is a declaration of love for her father. As she walks beside her father she explains the different aspects of his ideas. Much of what he thinks of and teach are obvious relations, but others give me some new insights. Nevertheless, as in my opinion about philosophy, it is mostly a long talk with an abundant number for words and for that reason could have been said much shorter and concise.
One of his idea that I find very attractive though is our problem to see and understand outside our own training in our society. This inability also makes it difficult for most of us to see and make changes, to evolve our mind. Today in a changing, globalized world, it is very important to be aware of what is happening to maintain democracy and an opened society. Besides, on a personal level, it is much more interesting to try to learn and understand, at least some of all, new inventions, cultural manifestations and influences in our own lives. I agree with Bateson that at the same time it takes some effort and accommodations to learn to see novel contexts. He was an anthropologist, but still not a specialist in any field. I find it very good is that about what we see when we for example look at a human hand. The five extensions could be anything if you just mek your own
Another point that Bateson has, is that he wanted to learn all his life, willingly from other people (not necessarily academics) a concept that offers wonderful opportunity to a rich intellectual.
I didn’t follow his reasoning about that “we don’t see the interconnections in nature”. Maybe not all of us, but certainly anybody who have an interest or just a pleasure to notice and/or understand “local” ecology, where we walk in nature (a small park in the city, in the country side or out in the “bush”). Besides, this is what it is all about regarding climate change etc.
A last reflection is that about Bateson’s comment about the concept of hemoglobin. If it existed on Mars, then of course it would still be the same molecule and probably have the same function to oxygenate the blood. In another biological system, I believe there would be another compound, not necessarily built of the same atoms that we have here on earth.

December 10, 2014 at 20:18 #15706

Reply to Michael’s relfection

I find Michael’s reflections to be very insightful and eye opening, actually at least as much as the film itself. I did not get as much as him at all from the film (it was somewhat difficult to hear what Bateson said). I, of course, agree with Michael about the interconnections in nature itself and between human, its mental and physical constructions. His comparison with M&N model of cross-faculty collaboration is good, but what I miss is the involvement of natural science. That is because I believe it is good with a balance between humanities and science to describe and take actions, for example to understand and to convince people about the importance to act NOW.
Michael writes that labour division as a distinct feature of a society. Then I would add that having different classes in a society is not unique for humans, just think of bees, ants and even mammals like lions (lionesses have different functions during the hunts). The line, another interesting discussion in his reflections, could probably have different meaning among people, either or both negate and positive. Certain may want to have that line to separate humans form other societies, other want to brake it, or at least make it dotted, thus having the opportunity to start explore the other side at the same time as being secure in the old “territory”. As Michael writes, the dotted line give hope that we might want and dare to look for g GOOD life. If I understand Michael correctly, he does not firsthand think of a life rich in money, but a life that rates other values. Again, I am not sure that we are the only mammals/primate to reflect on quality of life!

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