Posts Tagged ‘Gregory Bateson’

William Blake: Illustrations to Milton's "Paradise Lost"

William Blake: Illustrations to Milton’s “Paradise Lost”


This was the original entry for planet Earth in Douglas Adams’ the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which was later expanded by the book’s sub-editors in a subsequent edition to… “Mostly harmless”.

It’s great to revise a definition, and a nice way to begin a meandering blog entry.

Every now and again I like to try to rekindle my thoughts regarding the aim of education. I have rather got into the habit of saying only that ‘the aim of education is emancipation’. I’m not sure this is enough. After all, emancipation implies someone else (or someone else’s ideas) from which one has been given freedom. Though I know in many parts of the world that is a real issue, this wasn’t quite what I meant. I had in mind an internally generated aim, not a “release by” but a “release in”, achieved without external reference to anyone (or any thing) else.

So far, the best I’ve managed to come up with is: ‘the aim of education is freedom from comparison’.

This expresses more what I want for the Henley MBAs; that they should make informed choices not restrained by alignment to the notions defined by past experience or by prediction of future event alone (or, perhaps, at all). For personal development, the aim is freedom from validation, and from uncritical judgement of the opinion of others. It is an act of becoming completely at ease and at one with the world as it actually is. In its unspoken assumption of control over the world, our current pedagogy is very poor at this. For me, “freedom from comparison” is significant because it demands that you know under what system of restraints (i.e. being governed by what you cannot do) your awareness level is being limited. Awareness, actually, is the word I’m looking for.

In fact, I think “awareness” could stand as the real aim of education. Awareness subsumes comparison.

How do you get to awareness? (Easy when you know how, huh?) I think awareness is, in some way, being in tune with all forms of living system that demonstrate mental process in their function (Bateson, 1979), but explaining it is not easy with our current mental maps. The greatest barrier to awareness in education is whether or not we are aware of what a context is. Without context, education has no meaning, but meaning is not a thing, it is a pattern (i.e. it has no physical properties or dimensions, so is not to be quantified, objectified or reified in the manner that modern science has envisaged). Meaning carries weight (metaphorically) when it contains coded forms of information of what we can exclude (not what we must include) as alternative possibilities in each case. A red stop-light “tells us” nothing in and of itself. Its meaning is a very complex systemic property of interconnected levels of information (knowledge and structure of the legal system, social conventions on behaviours that align with the legal system, regulated processes of driver instruction and licensing, moral imperatives on behaviours that do not endanger others, etc.). The more such information it carries, the higher the probability of it not occurring just by chance.

All the possible restraints exist for us in nested levels of categories that each contain redundancies (i.e. information of the whole from a part) that mean we can navigate this complex social world without needing to exhaust ourselves with mental processing of every alternative. Systems of restraints are what keep dynamic systems stable over time. Including ‘you’ (as a circuit).  Your breathing, for example, works in a comparable way because your ability (for short periods only) to make this process a conscious one is merely an illustration of this whole nesting principle.

Managers carry with them maps of how their organisations work, and these maps contain many taken-for-granteds. We don’t understand this ‘gut feeling’ very well, but it is redundancy that allows educated guesswork on the part of the manager. Redundancy gives that person a better than random chance of ‘filling in the gaps’. The freedom inherent in management education is observed in how leaders conduct themselves and their work, and I think uncovering how these systems of restraints are universal could free their thinking and learning potential. To do this, education must seek news of difference (i.e. where are the limits?). The internal territory contains homogeneity or redundancy of information and there is nothing to be learned here. The individual is involved in the task of locating the boundaries where mistakes may be made in order to learn.


Bateson, G (1979), Mind and Nature: a necessary unity, E P Dutton

Read Full Post »

Flower in Oxford Botanic 2013

A couple of thoughts to end the week with:

Thought 1: Bateson’s challenge to management thinking

I’ve been listening, and not for the first time since it is multi-layered, to an audio recording of Gregory Bateson speaking, I think, to an audience of anthropology students in the 1970s about epistemology. He says the following:

“Epistemology is A, a branch of philosophy concerned the question of how it is possible to know anything, and what is truth, and questions like that. B, epistemology is a study of natural history; two studies of natural history. B1, it is the study of how people think they know things. B2 it is the study of how people know things. Which is not necessarily the same thing at all. It has to do with the word “how” and with the business of knowing. And everybody obviously has an epistemology, otherwise they couldn’t know anything, and those who say they don’t  have an epistemology have a lousy one.”

This contains some challenging ideas, and is already further along than most explanations of knowing that have been applicable in management learning. Later in that recorded session, and after illustrating the same point using Balinese puppets and the notion of symmetry in bird feathers, he asks whether the problem in knowing isn’t just a matter of error between the ‘how we know’ and the ‘how we think we know’. Confusion here results in a distorted epistemology – when descriptions of the way the world works (and it is inevitable that some sort of description will be necessary) are not in the same ‘language’ as the way the world works. Most social scientists and management academics act as though the social and the psychological worlds are governed by a set of fundamental laws with properties that are unique to human systems. So far, this view has led to all sorts of diverse (though hardly disparate, see below) conclusions and never-ending, small-scale internecine wars. No-one can agree with anyone on fundamental principles because everyone’s own fundamental principles are founded on the negation of the fundamental principles of others. Stalemate.

If, as a manager, you try to look at your organisation no longer in terms of numbers of parts to make up a whole but rather, as Bateson calls it, “a nest of relations”, you are closer to how nature puts things together. You begin to achieve an aesthetic understanding which is more harmonious with the fluid complexity of the way that messages and information that Organisation Theory has been attempting dismally to capture in explanation for at least 60 years. This is what an abductive mode of inference offers.

Thought 2: diversity is not the same as disparity

An often observed and pleasant feature of Day 1 on the Henley MBA is the diversity of background, industry and functional expertise that seems to be presented in each new group. This tends to be reinforced throughout the first days as people get to know each other. Correctly, in my view, this diversity is interpreted as a plus, and is real in the sense that our experience of identity is becoming more, not less, fragmented over time, and is likely to continue in that direction as knowledge-based and service sectors grow and emerging economies move in the same direction as the established ones.  However, I have never really thought much about what we mean when we talk about diversity in this way.

I have been reading a short book about Stephen Jay Gould’s approach to evolutionary theory and note an interesting contrast between the concept of:

       diversity – the numbers of variations within a set of basic types or forms (e.g. lots of species with much homology, or many aspects of personality characteristics formed from a few basic archetypes, or myriad job titles for the same basic sets of job functions etc.) –  and

      disparity – the numbers of different basic sets of types or forms.

Whilst not doubting that evolution offers good explanatory theory, Gould held that there were also still problems with it, as found, for example, in the idea that adaptation is progressive and, some would argue, teleological. In fact, he said, although we now see an amazing amount of rich diversity in our bio-sphere (probably uncountable numbers of variations of and within species of plant and animal), these are all variations from a surprisingly small number of forms. We have not seen, he says, an increase in disparity of basic forms since the explosion in diversity of species, 520 million years ago. On the contrary, there has been a steady reduction of variety.

So, I note that we may have diversity in our MBA, but there is very little disparity. In other words, and in a gross simplification of Gould, we have variation in but not of form. Lots of sorts of companies and businesses, but all with the same basic pattern or form. A variation of form for a Business School would be to reach out to include people/cultures  that have not been inter-twined in their development with our own. The global mono-culture seems to be the right condition for almost limitless response within cultural types, but very limited possibility to break out of that type itself.

I’m not sure what this really means, other than perhaps a sense that we may be vulnerable, at some higher level, to a kind of collective ‘groupthink’ in management education.

Read Full Post »

Model for PD at Henley

Those of you reading this who also maintain a Twitter account probably already know that with a little thought and some clever connecting, you can access a whole range of contacts, ideas, knowledge and links related to your interests or career there. If you have included being active on Twitter in the category of ‘Personal Branding’ and make use of it professionally in conjunction with, for example, LinkedIn, then it probably pays for you to spend some time giving irection to the list of those you are following (whilst keeping track of a whole load of wacky topics, celebs and funny tweeters as well).

Twitter, the micro-blogging website where any post is limited to 140 characters in length (in case you’ve been in the back of beyond for the last 5 years) encourages further exploration in two ways. First by you searching for #hash-tag denoted words, and the second by you searching for and then following “@” named users.

I was thinking about the things that interest me on this blog, and I came up with four categories to make some recommendations to check out and perhaps follow. Any text below that is in quotation marks is just the verbatim description from that Tweeter’s description, other comments are my own.

There are way too many resources on Twitter catering to all aspects of the MBA to cover in four, so this would need further expansion in the future, but here are my ideas:

1. @econwhichMBA
“The official Economist account for news and insights for Which MBA”. The Economist has a sales boost in its MBA ranking system, and business schools do their best to be the best in the list.

2. @TopMBA
A useful source of information from the company that organises many MBA fairs and events around the world. Worth looking at their web site.

3. @businessbecause
A networking account for those at all stages of their MBA. A bit “hit and miss” on the content of its tweets, but often with interesting links to articles etc.

4. @sustainableMBA
Just one example, of many possible choices, of an account run by someone with an MBA. Included here because I think the interest in sustainable businesses is vital for the MBA in the future

B. Personal Development
This is a huge category, and difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff (often bland or folksy quotes or endlessly re-churned lists). Avoiding the mundane PD self-help/self-improvement types, here are four possibilities:

5. @_robin_sharma
Interesting take on PD, Robin is a widely read author (I mean that in both senses)

6. @paulocoelho
Writer. Read on.

7. @alanwattsdaily
Not him, obviously, since sadly Alan died in the 1970s, but a way to see his eloquence, Tweet by Tweet

8. @careerealism
“Because every job is temporary”, Career and Job Search Resource

C. Reflective practice, education and management learning

This is quite wide as well, and actually there aren’t too many people dedicated to reflection in learning on Twitter.

9. @edutopia
“Inspiration and information for what works in education” Covers all types of education, so have to pick and choose from their links

10. @presentationzen
Garr Reynolds, author of a book designed (beautifully) to guide people away from awful powerpoint. Worth combining with Nancy Duarte’s “Resonate” and “Slide:ology” books, which all MBAs should own.

11. @sirkenrobinson
He of the classic TED.com presentations…

12. @hansrosling
He of the legendary TED.com presentations…

D. Systems thinking, Gregory Bateson, constellations and related stuff…

Could go anywhere, and include anything…

13. @whittingtonjohn
John is an amazing constellation therapist and professional developer.

14. @norabateson
Gregory’s youngest daughter, film-maker, thinker… director of the film  www.anecologyofmind.com

15. @eckharttolle

Eckhart is, er, actually, he’s a bit hard to define. Not always my style, but worth looking into, so to speak

16. @carolinelucas

Britain’s first ever Green MP!

Happy hunting. If anyone can recommend any sites in any of the categories above that they think worthy of a mention, then add a comment below.

Read Full Post »

Handing the PhD in


That’s the instruction I usually have to give to others at the end of their Henley MBA exam, but today it’s something I have to tell myself (at least for a while) as I have just handed in my PhD Thesis to the Registrar at the University of Lancaster. Done. Dusted.

And what an odd feeling it is.

I am proud of the achievement, and thankful that I had time to make the thousands of small edits and still meet my own personal deadline of the end of February. Now I have to focus on being ready to defend my thesis to a panel of examiners in a viva examination in a few months The fact of the viva is both petrifying and  galvanising – something to occupy the mind, certainly. However, not feeling the need to sit in front of a screen for hours and hours a day with notes, papers and books trying to draft and craft a text is, well, weird.

I might even read a book for the fun of it (I brought two with me up to Lancaster – a Penguin paperback of science fiction short stories, and R G Collingwood’s autobiography. The latter title is cheating a bit, of course.)

Oh, but, you know, this feels good!!!

Read Full Post »

Here we are at the final post in this series and the last of my grand list of six principles, and thus we are also at the concluding thought on the topic.

The question is, “what’s a metaphor?”

A metaphor is most commonly defined in terms of a literary device, a figure of speech whereby one thing stands in for another. The connection between those two things is deliberately not literal, as meaning is drawn by a comparison and by an underlying truth usefully is conveyed in the juxtaposition. Metaphors are also often thought of as optional, a way of adding colour to conversation. They are a routine device (part and parcel, in fact) in poetry, literature and instances where rhetoric is used to evoke emotion or call to action.  It doesn’t take too much effort to realise that we use analogy, simile and metaphor very frequently (just listen to any news broadcast, for example, and begin counting). In their book “Metaphors we live by” Lakoff and Johnson investigate the ways in which metaphor plays a very large part in our everyday language. Metaphors dominate and shape our discourse on business and management.

One could stop there, at words, but Lakoff and Johnson go on to note that “metaphor is pervasive in everyday life, not just in language but in thought and action. Our ordinary conceptual system, in terms of which we both think and act, is fundamentally metaphorical in nature.” Bateson would perhaps agree to a point, but Metaphor is a paradoxical form of communication found not just in human communication. For example, any instance of “play”, whether among  humans or animals, relies on an intricate, convoluted (to describe) relational series of messages and meta-messages (messages about messages), signals as signals. It would not be play if it only had literal meaning. This is so embedded in communication that we have to tend to miss that para-language, the non-verbal elements of communication such as body language, timing and intonation, is at a higher level to the words we use. The facial expression and intonation of one person as they say the words “I’m going to kill you” to their best mate is what lets the other know whether to laugh or run, and is no different a pattern to the meta-message of the wagging tail on a dog as it bites another and says (so to speak) “let’s play”. Behaviorists have a problem here, as metaphors are not acts or actions. “management”, therefore, is not an action or a behaviour. it is the meaning ascribed to a set of actions and we commit a fallacy if we equate the name with the thing it names. “This is management” (or, if you prefer, “this is leadership”) and  also “this is reflection” are both names for sets of actions, not actions themselves.  “This is reflection” is a mental frame and it is one with almost infinite meta-levels of regress, endless loops of (mostly unconscious!) context-markers. This is brilliantly demonstrated in Tom Stoppard’s play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, in which Shakespeare’s play-within-the-play is carried at least two further levels down, causing both humour and existential distress for the main characters, for whom reality is a shaky concept.

Framing and reframing might be another way of describing this, and these are now familiar concepts used – often in a flattened, simplified way – in cognitive  and spoken therapy, counselling (NLP being one well-known example) and coaching.   Metaphor is easy to spot and impossible to define, except perhaps in contrast with what it stands against; the literal and the prosaic

The principle in the title is not “use metaphor” but “use the logic of metaphor, so we need to establish what is meant here by the ‘logic’ of metaphor. Bateson used  the term “abduction” to explain this, a form of reasoning originally coined by the American Pragmatist philosopher C. S. Peirce at the turn of the last century. Peirce used abduction as a sort of reasonable inference of predicates in reaching a practical conclusion, which may then be further explored via another form of reasoning. In Bateson’s writings, abductive logic was contrasted with inductive and deductive forms using the three syllogisms below.

"Men are Grass"

Induction, deduction and abduction

The syllogism on the left represents induction – a weak prediction based on regularity of past and present observation, true only until contrary case is found. The centre syllogism is a deduction – the formal, logical necessity of “if X, and if Y, then Z must be so. This form of logic encourages linear hypothesis building and testing and has been very successful in the natural sciences, and occasionally useful in the social ones. The third syllogism is Bateson’s “Men are Grass” and is an abduction, where the agreement is of the predicates (in this case “die”). As with induction, abduction is meant to explore using prediction, but in a non-linear, poetic way. The more predicates one can find (analogies or cases that look similar) the better the pattern and the closer one is to an insight into the pattern of patterns.

This whole question could usefully and playfully be re-phrased (as Gregory Bateson suggested) “what’s a meta for?” If the essence of a metaphor is the playing around with messages from different domains and different levels, is this of any importance or use in management practice? I think it is. Gregory Bateson’s daughter, Mary, in Angels Fear provides one clue how when she writes “one can use an imagined identification with another person to enhance one’s own understanding of an idea or event by asking, how would so-and-so see this?” This is the essence of using dialogue as a way of seeing, as a kind of logic of metaphor in order to gain better self-awareness. In some way, reflection must be about this – a bewildering and dazzling set of possbilites between the internal and the external.

Read Full Post »

One of the nice things about having your own blog is that you can choose to do anything you want to — within reason. Whether or not the thing you then choose to do has any merit is, of course, another matter. Today I choose to be an amateur film reviewer (it’s the reviewer that is amateur, not the film, I hasten to add)

Yesterday I attended a special screening in London of the film “an Ecology of Mind“, a documentary about the ideas and philosophy of Gregory Bateson. The filmmaker behind the project is his youngest daughter, Nora, who has been on a tour of various serendipitous locations in various countries, tirelessly presenting and discussing the film, her father, and the legacy of his ideas.

The relative obscurity of Gregory Bateson’s work means that many people will ask “so, what’s this film all about?” Appropriately to its thesis, this question can be answered on more than one level. Compiled by Nora from archive materials and interviews with disciples, friends, fans and family members, the film presents an overview the most important aspects of what must initially strike those who limit their reading of Bateson’s work as a very confusing career. The joy of his ideas, set down with precision and care, emerges only with repeated reading, plus (and this is crucial) an accumulation of the breadth of his output spanning decades and disciplines. You’ve got to follow him the whole way in order to “get it”, but once you do it’s really all very simple: our task is to understand the elegance and beauty of the underlying pattern that connects. There is a corollary to this which is also quite important – and that is that our various means of slicing up, analysing and explaining the wholes that make up our world are 1) completely arbitrary (though often helpful) and 2) never the thing that they are trying to explain.

The venue was an old cinema in the University of Westminster building in Regent Street in London, which, stripped of permanent seating and laid out with standard-issue university seating,  had the feel of a school assembly. Nora spoke to introduce the film and spoke of her reasons for making it. This is a film about unending processes of learning and enquiry, and about the patterns of relationship that link all living systems. As a documentary it has many themes. On one level, it’s about the connection between father and daughter, about memory and the passing on from one generation to another of a curiosity about and love for learning, the natural world and the ways we have for making sense (and nonsense) of it. Equally, it’s about the development of a way of seeing the world around us and about equipping oneself to think rigorously about all of this stuff.

But Nora’s film definitely begins and ends in the very personal world of the relationship between father and daughter. Theirs is the dialogue that we open and close with snippets of. In particular, the closing exchange feels very poignant, and anyone who has read much of Bateson’s work will find echoes of his metalogues. Bateson was an explorer of ideas and also, it turns out, a very warm and loving teacher. But as befits its subject matter, there are things going on in this narrative on at several levels. The family portrait (and likeness) is also a device chosen to present a series of chapters in the film. One by one, each theme is signalled by an animation of Gregory and Nora walking hand in hand. These are expanded on and supported by interviews with others who have learnt from his ideas or who have been influential in their development. But the best moments are the archive sections which show Gregory at work, at play and at ease.  I especially enjoyed these clips of Bateson speaking, mostly in later life, sometimes in informal home movies, sometimes in hardly less informal lectures or classrooms. One of the best is a quote, where Bateson, evidently giving his interlocutor a summary of his career, recounts this list  “biology, into anthropology, into systems of ideas, into pathologies of systems of ideas, into ideas of how we all live together, and ‘we all’ means the plants and animals as well as you and me.”

I often feel that there is a ladder of understanding that you have to work up to “get” Bateson, and you can’t just skip to the top – not if you really want to escape the error of applying a theory of ideas and relationships to a world of concrete ‘things’. 

In fact, throughout the film there are reminders that very frequently we are asking the wrong question, that our whole outlook is based on error, and such types of error that we display in our thinking can have catastrophic consequences. This may the unifying reason why so many have welcomed the film and the chance to discuss Bateson’s work and its meaning for them.

Read at the level of biography, ‘An Ecology of Mind’ works well enough. Reading between the lines, though, is what will lead the viewer to begin to ask themselves the same questions that puzzled Bateson himself, and from that you then have to start reading some serious works. Don’t be deterred either by what others think or by your initial confusion – the effort really is worth it. You will not only learn something, you will learn something about what it means to learn something.

An Ecology of Mind is not yet available to buy on DVD in the United Kingdom, but can be purchased on the German Amazon web site.

Read Full Post »

Another set of thoughts prompted by a chapter in “A Sacred Unity” by Bateson, this time it’s “Men Are Grass: Metaphor and the World of Mental Process”, which is the transcript of a talk he gave (or broadcast, since he was too frail to attend in person) at an event in 1980, the year of his death.

The talk revolved around two themes (one general, the other specific) that were occupying him at the time: the direction of his life and work, and the limits of mechanical and material forms of language in explaining biological process.


1. The language of description is a language of materialism. It is incredibly difficult to ditch this, though in order to understand the processes that explain Reflection, we may have to. Or try, at least, for inevitably we may fail.

2. Ideas are not “things”.  They have zero mass, zero energy, zero dimensions. There are no “things” inside ideas, only ideas of things. Bateson writes “This lands you in a world which is totally strange. I find myself running screaming from its contemplation, and essentially running back to a world of materialism, which seems to be what everyone else does, limited only by their amount of discipline.” (p. 237)

3. The retreat to the world of a language of “things” creates a division that is, in one sense, not a real one. The split between “mind” and “matter” is a good example. So when we describe Reflection as a mental process we have to careful because the langauge of science (even social science) will want us to draw explanations of cause and effect that assume linearity.

4.  The “Barbara” syllogism

Men Die / Socrates is a man. / Socrates will die.

requires that there be such a “thing” as the invention of the concept of a subject (e.g. Socrates) in order for the logic of the proposition to mean anything. These were not invented until about 100,00 years ago, says Bateson, and though it may look like the only way of making sense, this logic cannot be the logic of the vast period of natural history and biological process. In the Socrates syllogism,  it’s equality membership of a class or set that is crucial. To many, the alternative equality, that of predicates which the Grass syllogism (Grass Dies / Men die. / Men are grass. ) uses is simply wrong and very much to be avoided in explaining anything except, perhaps, poetry, art, humour, games, fantasy, dreams and (controversially) mental conditions such as schizophrenia. For Bateson, this was, partly, we all have such a problem, as it cuts us off from a greater understanding of the mystery of natural process in living things.

5. According to Bateson that process got along just fine, messages were understood, and our best shot at understanding this is by the metaphor summed up in the Grass syllogism. We are quite used to the “idea” of metaphor as expressed consciously and linguistically, but for humans the questions may be “can metaphor also be unconscious or subconscious?” In fact, is this how metaphor operates, and if it is then what is the consequence for us in practice (or in research)?

Metaphor becomes the “organizing glue of this world of mental process” (p 241).


Bateson, G. (1991) “Men are Grass: Metaphor and the World of Mental Process”, in “A Sacred Unity: further steps to an ecology of mind.” A Cornelia and Michael Bessie Book, pp 235 -242

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »

%d bloggers like this: