Posts Tagged ‘Bateson’

A couple in dialogue with nature in a rainforest pool in northern Queensland.

I’m fond of telling anyone who’ll listen not only that reflection is at the heart of Personal Development,  but also that “introspection is necessary but not sufficient” for reflection. This second assertion is prompted by observation and supported by deduction.

The observation is of the shyness exhibited by most MBAs when it comes to sharing thoughts and feelings with others in a learning context. Hardened managers who would not hesitate to chip (or butt) in with their views when it comes to business decisions turn deafeningly silent when it comes to surfacing assumptions about themselves in a collective setting. This silent tendency is even more pronounced, if that’s the right word, when the sharing requires those thoughts to be expressed in writing. This is despite an intellectual acceptance of three ideas; that telling others helps reveal our thinking to ourselves, that listening to others somehow provides a boundary and shape for our own thoughts, and that the process of writing (especially for publication to an audience) is a distillation and perhaps a transformation of our thoughts (when we speak we do not use exactly the same language structure as when we write). Anecdotally, when you have a situation where trust has been established between managers who are all committed to learning, the efficacy of dialogue for PD is very often apparent, with rapid results.

Nevertheless, these observations cannot easily explain why dialogue is a principle of PD. That explanation comes from a deduction, itself following on from the second principle (which spoke of the concept of difference), of what must necessarily be going on in dialogue, intrinsic to reflection and therefore part of the Personal Development process.

Whenever a second view or reference point is made available, and difference created, a new level is not just a possiblity but a logical necessity. Gregory Bateson used the example of binocular vision to illustrate this. On its own, each of our eyes is sensitive to information or sense data. But a single eye cannot see distance; this facility is a property of the information processed from both eyes. However, the fact that we can perceive depth in three dimensions is not simply a matter of addition. Binocular vision is at a logical level hierarchically above the levels represented by what each eye “sees” on its own. As Bateson pointed out, this is a sort of multiplication, “[in] principle, extra “depth” in some metaphoric sense is to be expected whenever the information for the two descriptions is differently collected or differently coded.” (Bateson, 1979: 70).

So it may be said that dialogue in reflection results in a depth not present in either person’s thoughts on their own. A ‘conversation’ is an idea one level removed from the individual sets of utterances that make it up. A dialogue is, then, a double description which is the relationship between components (remember that a relationship or difference between things is not a property of those things and has zero dimensions) and when we engage in a dialogue what results is a viewpoint that we could not have seen only from our introspection. At least, deductively, this is what out to be so and what we may then investigate.

The 1st principle

The 2nd principle


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The first principle of Personal Development that was outlined in an earlier post was “acknowledge, without judgement, things as they are.”

Although not in itself sufficient for PD, this is certainly a necessary pre-requisite mental attitude; a stance of genuine curiosity about (and a conceptual uncoupling from) things. It turns out that we are already in trouble when we assert that there such things as “things”, but until now we have had little choice because the English language tends to be steadfastly material in its assumptions of the world. The world of difference, however, is notable for being immaterial.

So the second principle of Personal Development is an invitation to understand and then actively look for ‘difference’. This idea is perhaps the most elemental in Gregory Bateson’s relational view of the world and one that I have blogged about several times over the years. However, as a very brief resume, in a world of almost limitless potential bits of information which our senses detect, a difference is that bit of information that makes a difference. In other words it is an “elemental idea” whereby we become aware of the boundaries between one thing and another thing. In noting difference we must make some of sort comparison, but our comparison literally carries no weight, occupies no space, and is non-dimensional. A difference, in short, is a no-thing. Crucially, it is also not a property of any of the things we are comparing. Bateson went on to note that differences travel in recursive circuits of cause and effect in systems, and that they are transformed successively over time and are at the heart of what make living systems different, so to speak, from non-living ones.

But what does this have to do with PD and what does it mean in practice?

1. Without the relationship between ‘that which is’ and ‘that which is not’ it would be impossible to have any notion of “things as they are”, the first PD principle. 

2. Meaning is achieved by the ever-present question “compared to what?” (a question that is almost always an implicit or unconscious one).

3. Every notion implies its opposite, its negation.

4. Development implies learning, learning implies change of one sort or another, and change implies some sort of novelty which would be impossible if the world were a closed system.

An example, perhaps. I recently found out that I have had a development paper accepted to a management conference in September. The paper’s purpose is just to stimulate discussion, in  contribution to a given subject area (in this case ‘knowledge and learning’) and partly in order to give me some developmental feedback in peer review. The acceptance process involved some blind peer reviews, which I got to see. Two of the reviews were largely positive and quite supportive, but the third was a lot more critical. My first reaction was to accept the compliments and look for comforting support from their gentle suggestions for improvement. I dismissed the less complimentary review as being irrelevant, its author too far from my position to be of any use to me. On reflection it may be that the reviewer I didn’t  agree with that will help me understand my own thinking for what it is as it exposes it to its antithesis.  My job is first to note that this is the situation (acknowledge it) and note too how I feel about it, and then get curious about how such a different view clarifies my thinking. To to that, I’d need to understand that alternative argument.

In summary, in their daily working lives managers constantly (if unknowingly) make sense of what’s going on by embracing or ignoring the concept of difference and the world is an open system which operates according to an underlying pattern (or law?), regardless of our awareness of this being the case. Incidentally, because it is a property of the relationship between things and not of things themselves, the nature of “difference” is a very curious one to explore. In short, the difference between one thing and another is at a higher logical level than either of the things themselves. Bateson spent much of his life playing with the consequence of this, i.e. that ideas operate in a pattern, a hierarchy of  logical levels which are immanent in social structures and systems.

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Just found a really useful 2004 article on Action Research by Peter Hawkins which links the ideas of Gregory Bateson to organisational development and, in particular, the study of cultures in organisations. It’s rare to find someone writing about management and business who also employs a Batesonian perspective – and since this is precisely what I want to do with regard to Reflection and Personal Development, it’s a great find.

Already there is an interesting quote, which I want to share here:

“To assist the evolution of organizational culture, one first has to start by attending to these deeper organizing principles, which are not accessible from questionnaires or individual interviews, but can be glimpsed in the oft repeated stories and shared metaphors; the collective ways of tackling issues; the recursive patterns of behaviour, the shared unwritten rules and the collective emotional patterns that rarely can be articulated but which are communicated to the outsider through ‘empathic resonance’.”

There is much to consider in this paper. There is a re-appreciation of Bateson’s seminal idea of logical levels of learning, and how this impacts how we see reflection, as well as a naming of those practitioners and researchers who have, since the publication of Steps to an Ecology of Mind, been influenced by that systemic, recursive and complex vision. The themes which this vision deals in are immense – and they include the mind/body split, the ecological and intellectual crises brought about by the industrial revolution.

Our approach to this is key. Hawkins also says:

“We firstly start focusing on relationships, flows and patterns; and secondly realize that we are part of any field we are studying and to understand the field we must also reflect on ourselves as part of that world. ”


Hawkins, P (2004)’ A centennial tribute to Gregory Bateson 1904–1980 and his influence on the fields of organizational development and action research, Action Research, volume 2(4): 409–423

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In terms of PhD, my reading habits seem to swing to and fro between books and journals. For the second half of 2009, where before I had been amassing (mostly by raiding reference lists) very many peer-reviewed journal articles, the pendulum moved back to books, many of them seminal. Bateson’s own works of course – including a copy of Naven – and books about Bateson, but also a more diverse collection embracing cultural anthropology and evolutionary theory.  Now in the last couple of weeks, I again am collecting journal articles from a variety of sources I would not have predicted a year ago and with titles that should perhaps make me (or my supervisor) concerned.

All this flurry of activity is leading to is a presentation in March at Lancaster of my thinking to date, followed by an up-grade meeting in front of a panel.

Apart from communicating the kernel of my idea (below), I will need to show what I’ve done in terms of pilots. To that end, next week I shall be engaging some kindly volunteers from our full-time MBA cohort in Narrative Inquiry, built around interviews of career, learning points in life, and family-of-origin. There’s still a big piece of what I want to do missing, but this is progress.

As for the crux of the research, which revolves nicely around the question “what is learning?”, I now feel that the two productive (i.e. unexplored, relatively, in the context of Management Education) are:

a. the necessary connection between evolution and learning

b. how learning is a stochastic process

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There’s been an aspect of Bateson’s thinking that has been puzzling me. More exactly, and not for the first time, some time after reading a passage (or series of passages) by Bateson a small light-bulb switched on and revealed a door in my thinking to walk through. The fact that the fact of the door also reveals the hitherto unobserved fact that one is standing in a dead-end street .

In much of his writing, and in particular in Mind and Nature, he describes evolution and learning as the “two great stochastic processes”. Stochastic means “random”, but that also needs some explanation. Is evolution random? If stripped clean of the human notion of purpose or design, biological evolution might well be seen as being random. But in what sense is “learning” random?

Our default definition of learning, often cited in management education, seems to return always to the idea of an accumulation of acquisition of knowledge, with the individual (the learner) as a repository, a water-butt filling up. That’s probably an over-simplification, of course, because education now lives with nearly thirty years of developments in complexity theory and most people acknowledge that thinks are inter-linked. However, despite that experience how much do we really question underlying assumptions, and won’t we always prefer a nice, mechanistic explanation which looks like it could reasonably be classed among a set of “contributions to knowledge” (and another drip in the bucket)? As managers and as academics, we spend our time trying to filter out “noise” in order to define and refine our learning, but end up managing or researching in ever decreasing circles and cycles.

Nevertheless, I didn’t understand exactly how learning was stochastic, random, because I had been framing learning only in terms of myself.  I learn something when I meet a new or novel situation, and learning is simply a process of trial and error. The stimuli met by me, as a learner, I might then be tempted to imbue with the quality of randomness. But this results in an epistemological error since randomness is not a property of the stimulus, but rather of the relationship between myself and the stimulus.

What this means, therefore, is that “learning” is not a property within me.  It’s not just that learning cannot occur without a context, it is that learning forms the context, and the context is always of a higher logical level than the elements or parts that go to make it up.

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I have been allowing the limitations caused by the day job to allow the brain to incubate a number of ideas regarding where the PhD is going.

Now I have a moment in limbo, as it were, here in Trinidad to try and draw out some of those ideas and see if there any insights.  And there may be some; but the overall sense I have is of being dangerously unproductive. I will need to have something to show from all this thinking by late November in order to have a basis for data collection, though there’s a recursive caveat even there.

The first thing is that I have noticed how the reading and the thinking has begun to inform how I think and how I approach, for example, the workshops with Henley MBAs.  I feel better informed to frame the whole subject of learning, which is not the same as saying I have come across a pat or neat formula to define it. Bateson’s epistemology, and his investigation of learning theory is not directed toward simple solutions or algorithms.

Anyway, the thought that emerged on the plane was a moment of clarity about the key role that evolution plays in this.  In other words, without an understanding of evolution (which is an explanatory principle for learning in all living systems) there is no way to understand what learning is for human beings. Bateson, of course, had a particular view on what evolution is, and what it is not.

The a-ha moment was the realisation that I need to begin with the wider view in my research. Up to now, I kind of had it the other way round, that somehow the examination of human narratives on learning would reveal something about the nature of the evolutionary process (which is of a higher level of abstraction). This is an early formulation, and needs further thought.

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After a six week drought of time and energy to pursue it, I have just started to get back to the business of writing things down for my PhD.  With a new and deliciously abstract focus on epistemology.

All PhD candidates are required to show that they have justified their research question and methodology consistent with an explicit epistemology. For some, I suspect this is probably akin more to the drunk man’s use of a lamp-post for support rather than illumination or, worse, the adoption of a convenient theory of knowledge simply to fit the results of the research. 

For me, though, the epistemology is now the question, and one seeks to find data to shed some light on the epistemology, not the other way round.  Bateson once defined epistemology as a) “branch of philosophy concerned with how it is possible to know anything, what is truth, and so on…” and “the study of Natural History”, which meant for him the study of “how people think they know things” as well as “how people know things”. There was no need to define ontology (study of being) except within this definition of epistemology; they were essentially the same thing because in the world of living systems all knowledge is a matter of differentiation and classification of classes of differentiation. The differentiated world of form is one that “exists” in abstraction, inevitably removed from the undifferentiated, unknowable world of substance, of  “things as they are”. 

It follows that, in this branch of philosophy, “management” is not the name of an action but the name of a class or aggregate set of actions which become so labelled only from a view of the context in which those actions are taken.

So beginning from an epistemology that views all living organisms as systems and subsystems defined by patterns and by patterns of patterns, with patterns being the properties of difference, in my research I now propose use an exploration of human narrative to help me better understand how to appreciate what we mean by “patterns of patterns” and what we mean (in Management Education) when we talk about “learning”.

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I had what turned out to be a pre-upgrade PhD panel meeting in Lancaster this week. I had prepared a document for it and that was used as the basis for discussion with two Lancaster faculty. Not knowing quite what to expect was excuse enough not to be too nervous, although the previous evening’s read-through of my submission left me feeling dissatisfied. I had been working on that document for some time, and it was intended to “state my case” so far, and it appeared to follow convention in its structure and form. However, it also felt in part incomplete and, aside from a few passages at the beginning and when speaking of Bateson’s work, flat. By chance, whilst in the library on campus, I found listed the PhD thesis of someone called Noel Charlton, who had written his PhD on Bateson, and who has since published a book, Understanding Gregory Bateson, which I now must get hold of.

After an hour and a quarter of discussion, questioning, observation and critique, I came away feeling both daunted and excited. Daunted because I was being asked to “rewrite and resubmit”, and still excited because I was also being given the go-ahead to present my thinking in a manner congruent with my subject of investigation. In other words, in my own words. Because I wish to investigate pattern, form and relationship in a more narrative and nested format, I am now offered the chance to do so freed from slavishly following structured convention, and of the confines of the language of scientific reification.

I immediately knew where I wanted to start again, though it will not be an easy task. Bateson.

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