Re: The Review of Mind & Nature

Eve Pinsker (U56728@UICVM.BITNET)
Sun, 5 Mar 1995 16:01:39 CST

I concur w. Scott Holmes'note to Danny Yee on Bateson's usage of "mind": the
whole point is that he was trying to redefine the notion of "mind" as "mental
process" that is not limited by the "skin" or whatever we see as the boundary
between an organism and the world outside of it. Bateson was not comparing
the "mind" of a "human" to that of a "tree," etc., he wasn't thinking in terms
of individual humans or trees or a collective group of either, he was looking
at pathways of information and communication, those pathways and processes were
what he called mind. As he makes clear in the example he often used of a man
cutting down a tree, and in so doing responding to the differences his nervous
system registers, which are transformations/perceptions of differences in the
state of the tree, which are transformations of the actions the man is
performing in relation to the tree. This may be a bad example in that we
see the tree as very passive and not really processing information itself, so
it's hard to think of that part of the reactive cycle as mental, but think of
flowers that open up in response to daylight, and thus demonstrate what Bateson
called "mental" process through transforming differences in the outside world
into differences within the organism ("a difference that makes a difference"
being the definition of information). "Mental process" or "mind" as Bateson
defined it, was not a property of anything, least of all an individual
organism, but a way of analyzing systems that is different from a Newtonian-
physicalist analysis in terms of forces and impacts. See, in _Steps to an
Ecology of Mind_, the essay "Form, Substance, and Difference," in which he
explains the difference between these different modes of explanation, using
the terms "creatura" and "pleroma," which he got from Jung.
I like _Mind and Nature_ (and I think the most useful thing in there, in
terms of what was added to his earlier work, is the discussion of the
alternation between form and process) but I keep going back to the essays in
_Steps_ (so much so that I've worn out 2 paperback copies of it; I didn't know
it was out of print). Maybe the exposition in _Mind and Nature_ got watered
down because it was directed towards a broader audience. I'm not saying
Bateson said everything there was to say (and he would be the last person to
have said that; I met him shortly before he died, and he pretty much said he'd
left plenty of work for others to do) but there's a lot in there that's worth
unpacking and extending, and I wish more anthropologists were interested in
doing so.
Bateson's insistence that social science should be connected to both
work in the natural sciences and in the humanities (that social scientists
be knowledgeable about both entropy and sacraments, if they are to add anything
worthwhile to the long discussion humans have had about humans) is something
that I think contemporary anthropologists would do well to heed. From the
natural sciences, he borrowed the mode of thought that proceeds from the
explicit construction of an analytical system, spelling out the assumptions,
etc. it's based on, and seeing where those assumptions lead, something that I
think often gets lost in the critiques of others' work and critiques of those
critiques that's what constitutes a large part of contemporary cultural
anthropological discourse. One of my friends/colleagues characterized that
as the difference between a "theory-building" mode and an "essay" mode of
discourse. There isn't much support currently for "theory-building" modes of
discourse in cultural anthropology, because that means you have to proceed from
deconstruction to construction and say, look, I know this isn't the way
Gramsci or whoever used these terms, but this is the way I'm using them and
I want my definitions judged in terms of their analytical payoff, what makes
new sense out of the data, not how
many people I manage to cite or how many other arguments I can poke holes in.
Bateson's stuff has a lot of holes, he knew that himself, the point is I
think there are a lot of ideas there that are generative, that other people
can usefully play with, refine or extend, to make sense of data they're
working with (Bateson's stuff on "play" being itself a good example, that
anthropologists like Helen Schwartzman and Don Handelman made good use of).
Eve Pinsker