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"This collection amounts to a retrospective exhibition of a working life. . . . Bateson has come to this position during a career that carried him not only into anthropology, for which he was first trained, but into psychiatry, genetics, and communication theory. . . . He . . . examines the nature of the mind, seeing it not as a nebulous something, somehow lodged somewhere in the body of each man, but as a network of interactions relating the individual with his society and his species and with the universe at large."—D. W. Harding, New York Review of Books
"[Bateson's] view of the world, of science, of culture, and of man is vast and challenging. His efforts at synthesis are tantalizingly and cryptically suggestive. . . .This is a book we should all read and ponder."—Roger Keesing, American Anthropologist
Gregory Bateson (1904-1980) was the author of Naven and Mind and Nature.
Part I: Metalogues
Definition: A metalogue is a conversation about some problematic subject. This conversation should be such that not only do the participants discuss the problem but the structure of the conversation as a whole is also relevant to the same subject. Only some of the conversations here presented achieve this double format.
Notably, the history of evolutionary theory is inevitably a metalogue between man and nature, in which the creation and interaction of ideas must necessarily exemplify evolutionary process.
Metalogue: Why Do Things Get in a Muddle?
Daughter: Daddy, why do things get in a muddle?
Father: What do you mean? Things? Muddle?
D: Well, people spend a lot of time tidying things, but they never seem to spend time muddling them. Things just seem to get in a muddle by themselves. And then people have to tidy them up again.
F: But do your things get in a muddle if you don't touch them?
D: No—not if nobody touches them. But if you touch them—or if anybody touches them—they get in a muddle and it's a worse muddle if it isn't me.
F: Yes—that's why I try to keep you from touching the things on my desk. Because my things get in a worse muddle if they are touched by somebody who isn't me.
D: But do people always muddle other people's things? Why do they, Daddy?
F: Now, wait a minute. It's not so simple. First of all, what do you mean by a muddle?
D: I mean—so I can't find things, and so it looks all muddled up. The way it is when nothing is straight—
F: Well, but are you sure you mean the same thing by muddle that anybody else would mean?
D: But, Daddy, I'm sure I do—because I'm not a very tidy person and if I say things are in a muddle, then I'm sure everybody else would agree with me.
F: All right—but do you think you mean the same thing by "tidy" that other people would? If your mummy makes your things tidy, do you know where to find them?
D: Hmm ... sometimes—because, you see, I know where she puts things when she tidies up—
F: Yes, I try to keep her away from tidying my desk, too. I'm sure that she and I don't mean the same thing by "tidy."
D: Daddy, do you and I mean the same thing by "tidy?"
F: I doubt it, my dear—I doubt it.
D: But, Daddy, isn't that a funny thing—that everybody means the same when they say "muddled" but everybody means something different by "tidy." But "tidy" is the opposite of "muddled," isn't it?
F: Now we begin to get into more difficult questions. Let's start again from the beginning. You said "Why do things always get in a muddle?" Now we have made a step or two—and let's change the question to "Why do things get in a state which Cathy calls 'not tidy?' " Do you see why I want to make that change?
D: ... Yes, I think so—because if I have a special meaning for "tidy" then some of other people's "tidies" will look like muddles to me—even if we do agree about most of what we call muddles—
F: That's right. Now—let's look at what you call tidy. When your paint box is put in a tidy place, where is it?
D: Here on the end of this shelf.
F: Okay—now if it were anywhere else?
D: No, that would not be tidy.
F: What about the other end of the shelf, here? Like this?
D: No, that's not where it belongs, and anyhow it would have to be straight, not all crooked the way you put it.
F: Oh—in the right place and straight.
F: Well, that means that there are only very few places which are "tidy" for your paint box—
D: Only one place—
F: No—very few places, because if I move it a little bit, like this, it is still tidy.
D: All right—but very, very few places.
F: All right, very, very few places. Now what about the teddy bear and your doll, and the Wizard of Oz and your sweater, and your shoes? It's the same for all the things, isn't it, that each thing has only a very, very few places which are "tidy" for that thing?
D: Yes, Daddy—but the Wizard of Oz could be anywhere on that shelf. And Daddy—do you know what? I hate, hate it when my books get all mixed up with your books and Mummy's books.
F: Yes, I know. (Pause)
D: Daddy, you didn't finish. Why do my things get the way I say isn't tidy?
F: But I have finished—it's just because there are more ways which you call "untidy" than there are ways which you call "tidy."
D: But that isn't a reason why—
F: But, yes, it is. And it is the real and only and very important reason.
D: Oh, Daddy! Stop it.
F: No, I'm not fooling. That is the reason, and all of science is hooked up with that reason. Let's take another example. If I put some sand in the bottom of this cup and put some sugar on the top of it, and now stir it with a teaspoon, the sand and the sugar will get mixed up, won't they?
D: Yes, but, Daddy, is it fair to shift over to talking about "mixed up" when we started with "muddled up?"
F: Hmm ... I wonder ... but I think so—Yes—because let's say we can find somebody who thinks it is more tidy to have all the sand underneath all the sugar. And if you like I'll say I want it that way—
D: Hmm ...
F: All right—take another example. Sometimes in the movies you will see a lot of letters of the alphabet all scattered over the screen, all higgledy-piggledy and some even upside down. And then something shakes the table so that the letters start to move, and then as the shaking goes on, the letters all come together to spell the title of the film.
D: Yes, I've seen that—they spelled DONALD.
F: It doesn't matter what they spelled. The point is that you saw something being shaken and stirred up and instead of getting more mixed up than before, the letters came together into an order, all right way up, and spelled a word—they made up something which a lot of people would agree is sense.
D: Yes, Daddy, but you know ...
F: No, I don't know; what I am trying to say is that in the real world things never happen that way. It's only in the movies.
D: But, Daddy ...
F: I tell you it's only in the movies that you can shake things and they seem to take on more order and sense than they had before ...
D: But, Daddy ...
F: Wait till I've finished this time ... And they make it look like that in the movies by doing the whole thing backwards. They put the letters all in order to spell DONALD and then they start the camera and then they start shaking the table.
D: Oh, Daddy—I knew that and I did so want to tell you that—and then when they run the film, they run it backwards so that it looks as though things had happened forwards. But really the shaking happened backwards. And they have to photograph it upside down ... Why do they, Daddy?
F: Oh God.
D: Why do they have to fix the camera upside down, Daddy?
F: No, I won't answer that question now because we're in the middle of the question about muddles.
D: Oh—all right, but don't forget, Daddy, you've got to answer that question about the camera another day. Don't forget! You won't forget, will you, Daddy? Because I may not remember. Please, Daddy.
F: Okay—but another day. Now, where were we? Yes, about things never happening backwards. And I was trying to tell you why it is a reason for things to happen in a certain way if we can show that that way has more ways of happening than some other way.
D: Daddy—don't begin talking nonsense.
F: I'm not talking nonsense. Let's start again. There's only one way of spelling DONALD. Agreed?
F: All right. And there are millions and millions and millions of ways of scattering six letters on the table. Agreed?
D: Yes. I suppose so. Can some of these be upside down?
F: Yes—just in the sort of higgledy-piggledy muddle they were in in the film. But there could be millions and millions and millions of muddles like that, couldn't there? And only one DONALD?
D: All right—yes. But, Daddy, the same letters might spell OLD DAN.
F: Never mind. The movie people don't want them to spell OLD DAN. They only want DONALD.
D: Why do they?
F: Damn the movie people.
D: But you mentioned them first, Daddy.
F: Yes—but that was to try to tell you why things happen that way in which there are most ways of their happening. And now it's your bedtime.
D: But, Daddy, you never did finish telling me why things happen that way—the way that has most ways.
F: All right. But don't start any more hares running—one is quite enough. Anyhow, I am tired of DONALD, let's take another example. Let's take tossing pennies.
D: Daddy? Are you still talking about the same question we started with? "Why do things get in a muddle?"
D: Then, Daddy, is what you are trying to say true about pennies, and about DONALD, and about sugar and sand, and about my paint box, and about pennies?
F: Yes—that's right.
D: Oh—I was just wondering, that's all.
F: Now, let's see if I can get it said this time. Let's go back to the sand and the sugar, and let's suppose that somebody says that having the sand at the bottom is "tidy" or "orderly."
D: Daddy, does somebody have to say something like that before you can go on to talk about how things are going to get mixed up when you stir them?
F: Yes—that's just the point. They say what they hope will happen and then I tell them it won't happen because there are so many other things that might happen. And I know that it is more likely that one of the many things will happen and not one of the few.
D: Daddy, you're just an old bookmaker, backing all the other horses against the one horse that I want to bet on.
F: That's right, my dear. I get them to bet on what they call the "tidy" way—I know that there are infinitely many muddled ways—so things will always go toward muddle and mixedness.
D: But why didn't you say that at the beginning, Daddy? I could have understood that all right.
F: Yes, I suppose so. Anyhow, it's now bedtime.
D: Daddy, why do grownups have wars, instead of just fighting the way children do?
F: No—bedtime. Be off with you. We'll talk about wars another time.
Metalogue: Why Do Frenchmen?
Daughter: Daddy, why do Frenchmen wave their arms about?
Father: What do you mean?
D: I mean when they talk. Why do they wave their arms and all that?
F: Well—why do you smile? Or why do you stamp your foot sometimes?
D: But that's not the same thing, Daddy. I don't wave my arms about like a Frenchman does. I don't believe they can stop doing it, Daddy. Can they?
F: I don't know—they might find it hard to stop.... Can you stop smiling?
D: But Daddy, I don't smile all the time. It's hard to stop when I feel like smiling. But I don't feel like it all the time. And then I stop.
F: That's true—but then a Frenchman doesn't wave his arms in the same way all the time. Sometimes he waves them in one way and sometimes in another—and sometimes, I think, he stops waving them.
* * *
F: What do you think? I mean, what does it make you think when a Frenchman waves his arms?
D: I think it looks silly, Daddy. But I don't suppose it looks like that to another Frenchman. They cannot all look silly to each other. Because if they did, they would stop it. Wouldn't they?
F: Perhaps—but that is not a very simple question. What else do they make you think?
D: Well—they look all excited ...
F: All right—"silly" and "excited."
D: But are they really as excited as they look? If I were as excited as that, I would want to dance or sing or hit somebody on the nose ... but they just go on waving their arms. They can't be really excited.
F: Well—are they really as silly as they look to you? And anyhow, why do you sometimes want to dance and sing and punch somebody on the nose?
D: Oh. Sometimes I just feel like that.
F: Perhaps a Frenchman just feels "like that" when he waves his arms about.
D: But he couldn't feel like that all the time, Daddy, he just couldn't.
F: You mean—the Frenchman surely does not feel when he waves his arms exactly as you would feel if you waved yours. And surely you are right.
D: But, then, how does he feel?
F: Well—let us suppose you are talking to a Frenchman and he is waving his arms about, and then in the middle of the conversation, after something that you have said, he suddenly stops waving his arms, and just talks. What would you think then? That he had just stopped being silly and excited?
D: No ... I'd be frightened. I'd think I had said something that hurt his feelings and perhaps he might be really angry.
F: Yes—and you might be right.
* * *
D: All right—so they stop waving their arms when they start being angry.
F: Wait a minute. The question, after all, is what does one Frenchman tell another Frenchman by waving his arms? And we have part of an answer—he tells him something about how he feels about the other guy. He tells him he is not seriously angry—that he is willing and able to be what you call "silly."
D: But—no—that's not sensible. He cannot do all that work so that later he will be able to tell the other guy that he is angry by just keeping his own arms still. How does he know that he is going to be angry later on?
F: He doesn't know. But, just in case ...
D: No, Daddy, it doesn't make sense. I don't smile so as to be able to tell you I am angry by not smiling later on.
F: Yes—I think that that is part of the reason for smiling. And there are lots of people who smile in order to tell you that they are not angry—when they really are.
D: But that's different, Daddy. That's a sort of telling lies with one's face. Like playing poker.
* * *
F: Now where are we? You don't think it sensible for Frenchmen to work so hard to tell each other that they are not angry or hurt. But after all what is most conversation about? I mean, among Americans?
D: But, Daddy, it's about all sorts of things—baseball and ice cream and gardens and games. And people talk about other people and about themselves and about what they got for Christmas.
F: Yes, yes—but who listens? I mean—all right, so they talk about baseball and gardens. But are they exchanging information? And, if so, what information?
D: Sure—when you come in from fishing, and I ask you "did you catch anything?" and you say "nothing," I didn't know that you wouldn't catch anything till you told me.
* * *
F: All right—so you mention my fishing—a matter about which I am sensitive—and then there is a gap, a silence in the conversation—and that silence tells you that I don't like cracks about how many fish I didn't catch. It's just like the Frenchman who stops waving his arms about when he is hurt.
D: I'm sorry, Daddy, but you did say ...
F: No—wait a minute—let's not get confused by being sorry—I shall go out fishing again tomorrow and I shall still know that I am unlikely to catch a fish ...
D: But, Daddy, you said all conversation is only telling other people that you are not angry with them ...
F: Did I? No—not all conversation, but much of it. Sometimes if both people are willing to listen carefully, it is possible to do more than exchange greetings and good wishes. Even to do more than exchange information. The two people may even find out something which neither of them knew before.
* * *
F: Anyhow, most conversations are only about whether people are angry or something. They are busy telling each other that they are friendly—which is sometimes a lie. After all, what happens when they cannot think of anything to say? They all feel uncomfortable.
D: But wouldn't that be information, Daddy? I mean—information that they are not cross?
F: Surely, yes. But it's a different sort of information from "the cat is on the mat."
* * *
D: Daddy, why cannot people just say "I am not cross at you" and let it go at that?
F: Ah, now we are getting to the real problem. The point is that the messages which we exchange in gestures are really not the same as any translation of those gestures into words.
D: I don't understand.
F: I mean—that no amount of telling somebody in mere words that one is or is not angry is the same as what one might tell them by gesture or tone of voice.
D: But, Daddy, you cannot have words without some tone of voice, can you? Even if somebody uses as little tone as he can, the other people will hear that he is holding himself back—and that will be a sort of tone, won't it?
F: Yes—I suppose so. After all that's what I said just now about gestures—that the Frenchman can say something special by stopping his gestures.
* * *
F: But then, what do I mean by saying that "mere words" can never convey the same message as gestures—if there are no "mere words"?
D: Well, the words might be written.
F: No—that won't let me out of the difficulty. Because written words still have some sort of rhythm and they still have overtones. The point is that no mere words exist. There are only words with either gesture or tone of voice or something of the sort. But, of course, gestures without words are common enough.
* * *
D: Daddy, when they teach us French at school, why don't they teach us to wave our hands?
F: I don't know. I'm sure I don't know. That is probably one of the reasons why people find learning languages so difficult.
* * *
F: Anyhow, it is all nonsense. I mean, the notion that language is made of words is all nonsense—and when I said that gestures could not be translated into "mere words," I was talking nonsense, because there is no such thing as "mere words." And all the syntax and grammar and all that stuff is nonsense. It's all based on the idea that "mere" words exist—and there are none.
D: But, Daddy ...
F: I tell you—we have to start all over again from the beginning and assume that language is first and foremost a system of gestures. Animals after all have only gestures and tones of voice—and words were invented later. Much later. And after that they invented schoolmasters.
D: Would it be a good thing if people gave up words and went back to only using gestures?
F: Hmm. I don't know. Of course we would not be able to have any conversations like this. We could only bark, or mew, and wave our arms about, and laugh and grunt and weep. But it might be fun—it would make life a sort of ballet—with dancers making their own music.
Excerpted from Steps to an Ecology of Mind by Gregory Bateson. Copyright © 2000 Mary Catherine Bateson. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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