Gregory Bateson’s World of Difference
FORDHAM UNIVERSITY PRESS 2016
October 4, 2018 Tom Scholte
The work of polymath Gregory Bateson has long been the road to cybernetics travelled by those approaching this trans-disciplinary field from the direction of the social sciences and even the humanities. Fortunately for devotees of Bateson’s expansive vision, Peter Harries-Jones has continued the expert analysis that gave us 1995’s A Recursive Vision: Ecological Understanding and Gregory Bateson, with his 2016 offering, Upside-Down Gods: Gregory Bateson’s World of Difference (Fordham University Press, 2016). Harries-Jones has clearly thought deeply about the totality of Bateson’s corpus while drawing upon a wide variety of sources including personal correspondence. The result is an illuminating study that, amongst other accomplishments, productively positions Bateson’s work as a foundation of today’s burgeoning field of biosemiotics. In our wide-ranging conversation, Harries-Jones warns us of the perils of a strictly algorithmic “world without mind,” details Bateson’s intellectual tussle with Bertrand Russell’s Theory of Logical Types, and amplifies Bateson’s bold challenges to the social sciences to let go of the centrality of power and control and replace them with an appreciation of aesthetics and form, to heal the “epistemic cut” between the human and the animal, and even dare to recuperate selected elements of the thought of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck in a challenge to Darwinian orthodoxy. All of this makes for a conversation that is as incisive and articulate as his highly readable monograph asking us to carefully consider the intellectual and ecological benefits of Bateson’s “upside down” ontology with “mind” as foundation rather than emergent phenomenon.
Science’s conventional understanding of environment as an inert material resource underlies our unwillingness to acknowledge the military-industrial role in ongoing ecological catastrophes. In a crucial challenge to modern science’s exclusive attachment to materialist premises, Bateson reframed culture, psychology, biology, and evolution in terms of feedback and communication, fundamentally altering perception of our relationship with nature.
This intellectual biography covers the whole trajectory of Bateson’s career, from his first anthropological work alongside Margaret Mead through the continuing relevance of his late forays into biosemiotics. Harries-Jones shows how the sum of Bateson’s thinking across numerous fields turns our notions of causality upside down, providing a moral divide between sustainable creativity and our current biocide.
Harries-Jones profile – http://laps-dept.apps01.yorku.ca/anth/faculty/emeriti/harries.html
Harries-Jones on video – Feedback and the Voice of Sanity