Form, Substance and Difference

  • Donald Favareau
Part of the Biosemiotics book series (BSEM, volume 3)


The elementary cybernetic system with its messages in circuit is, in fact, the simplest unit of mind; and the transform of a difference travelling in a circuit is the elementary idea. …The way to delineate the system is to draw the limiting line in such a way that you do not cut any of these pathways in ways which leave things inexplicable. G. Bateson (1972: 465)

Introduction and Commentary: Gregory Bateson

The elementary cybernetic system with its messages in circuit is, in fact, the simplest unit of mind; and the transform of a difference travelling in a circuit is the elementary idea. …The way to delineate the system is to draw the limiting line in such a way that you do not cut any of these pathways in ways which leave things inexplicable.

G. Bateson (1972: 465)

“[My father’s] intellectual path did not fit neatly within any familiar discipline,” writes cultural anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson (1938– ), daughter of polymath Gregory Bateson and anthropologist Margaret Mead – and the person upon whom the precocious child interlocutor featured in Bateson’s Socratic-style “meta-logue” analyses is modeled. Anthropologist, zoologist, social psychologist, biologist, epistemologist, systems theorist, communications theorist and ecologist, Gregory Bateson “grew up in a household focused on natural history, most especially on the debates surrounding evolution and genetics,” writes Mary Catherine, “and was oriented from birth towards science” (2000: vii).

Born on May 9, 1904, Gregory Bateson was the third son of the legendary geneticist William Bateson (1861–1926), the man who introduced modern science to the work of Gregory Mendel, and whose own research into the phenomena of variation and discontinuity within the natural processes of evolution – which entailed an iconoclastic challenging of the biometric reductionsism of his day – exerted a lifelong influence on Gregory’s turn of mind (Forsdyke 2009, Lipset 1982: 142–159). “We commonly think of animals and plants as matter,” wrote the elder Bateson, foreshadowing some of his son’s later preoccupations, “but they are really systems, through which matter is continually passing” (1928: 209).1

The making of such distinctions as that between the material substrata of living systems and the constitutive relations which alone make such systems living systems would become a hallmark of Gregory’s lifelong attempt to delineate the relations in which organismic “knowing” can have arisen from, and does yet find its rightful place in, the natural world. Convinced that a naturalistic account of “mind” can only be intelligently undertaken from the bringing together of a multiplicity of perspectives, and anticipating by decades both the feasibility and the necessity of “interdisciplinary” research, “it was yet not clear for many years, even to Gregory,” recounts his daughter, “that his disparate, elegantly crafted and argued essays [on such topics as bilateral symmetry, alcoholism, animal communication and cultural epistemology] were about a single subject” (2000: viii).

Obtaining, characteristically, a Bachelor of Science Degree in Natural Science (with a concentration in zoology) from Cambridge University in 1925 – as well as a Master’s Degree in Anthropology from that same institution five years later, Bateson also conducted anthropological fieldwork studying the Baining and Sulka tribes of New Britain from 1927 to 1928. His first fieldwork in New Guinea was an investigation of the social lives of the Iatmul people, which he undertook from 1929 to 1930. Subsequent to his graduation from Cambridge in 1930, Bateson returned to New Guinea to conduct further fieldwork in 1932, there meeting the American anthropologist Margaret Mead (1901–1978), to whom he would later be married from 1936 to 1950.

Naven, the book in which Bateson recounts his fieldwork with the Iatmul, was published in 1936. A groundbreaking work that contains the seeds of many of Bateson’s later fully-developed ideas about double description, logical typing, and the presence of systemic interactions within a circular social system that constrain potential feedback runaway states (i.e., schismogenesis),2 Naven, Bateson writes in its Epilogue, is a book as much about the nature of deriving “explanations” from “data” per se (whether done by anthropologists, scientists or everyday people) than it is a conventional “anthropological study” (1936 [1958]: 280–303). Notes Bateson biographer and biosemiotic scholar Peter Harries-Jones:

At the time, theories of functionalism provided a formula enabling anthropologists to write systematic accounts of local culture without worrying too much about the relations beween subject and object, self and other, observer and the observed. By contrast, Naven, as its subtitle – A Survey of the Problems Suggested by a Composite Picture of the Culture of a New Guinea Tribe Drawn from Three Points of View – indicates, took the relationship of observer to observed as its central focus. Naven discusses how ethnographic method gave rise to “fallacies of misplaced concreteness” – a term Bateson borrowed from the English philosopher Alfred North Whitehead – that derive from hiding points of view [as ‘points of view’ – both others’ and one’s own – from oneself in one’s explanations] and treating them instead as scientific data (1998: 64).

This concern with the careful delineation of interdependent and multiply-embedded semiotic phenomena so as to avoid epistemological error would prove to be a driving force in Bateson’s later work in psychology, philosophy, evolutionary theory and ecology – work which can be increasingly characterized as “biosemiotic”, or at least “proto-biosemiotic”, as we shall see.

From 1936 to 1938, Bateson and Mead conducted fieldwork together in Bali, pioneering the use of motion-picture photography as an ethnographic medium. The product of this work was their co-authored 1942 volume entitled Balinese Character. 3 In 1939, Bateson and Mead returned to United States, where Bateson worked as Anthropological Film Analyst analyzing German propaganda films at the Museum of Modern Art in New York from 1942 to 1943, and for the United States Office of Strategic Services in Southeast Asia – where he occupied posts in Ceylon, India, and Burma from 1943 to 1945. As Bateson scholar Peter Harries-Jones notes, Bateson rarely supported himself with university teaching positions or full-time academic affiliation, but instead financed almost his entire career with research grants allowing him to pursue his interests – and by so doing achieved a degree of multidisciplinary sophistication that is still all too rare in academia (2008: p.c.).

“In 1942,” recalls Bateson, “at a Macy Foundation conference, I met Warren McCulloch and Julian Bigelow, who were then talking excitedly about feedback” (1972: xix). Bigelow (1913–2003), then an electrical engineer, had been working with Norbert Wiener (1894–1964) at MIT on the development of automatic anti-aircraft defence systems that could track moving targets and adjust their own aim and firing positions accordingly. Given that this project, by its very nature, investigated the recursive relations of information and communication, signals and response, Wiener would later coin the term cybernetics (from the Greek word for “governor”) to denote “the entire field of control and communication theory, whether in the machine or in the animal” for which such “signal science” would have applicability (1948: 11). Over time, biologists such as Warren McCulloch (1898–1969) and mathematicians such as Walter Pitts (1923–1969) would advance such cybernetic research into the newly-developing fields of cognitive science, computer engineering and artificial intelligence.

“The writing of Naven had brought me to the very edge of what later became cybernetics, but I lacked the concept of negative feedback,” recalls Bateson, “[and so] when I returned from overseas after the war, I went to Frank Freemont-Smith of the Macy Foundation to ask for a conference on this then-mysterious matter. Frank said that he had just arranged such a conference with McCulloch as chairman. It thus happened that I was privileged to be a member of the famous Macy Conferences on Cybernetics” (1972: xix–xx). Convened as an interdisciplinary working group of accomplished mathematicians, biologists, engineers, and anthropologists, the Macy Conferences on Cybernetics consisted of a series of ten conferences, held in various locations in the United States during the period 1946–1953, and was dedicated to such topics as self-organization in neural networks, homeostasis and learning, information theory and Gestalt psychology, and social and linguistic constructions of the “self” (Pias 2003).

Bateson would later recount his participation in these conferences as “one of the greatest events of my life” (Brockman 1977: 10), and averring that “my debt to Warren McCulloch, Norbert Wiener, John von Neumann, Evelyn Hutchinson and other members of these conferences is evident in everything that I have written since World War II” (1972: xx).

It would be to fundamentally misunderstand Bateson and his work to infer from this statement, however, that “Bateson is a mechanist who supports a technical, computer-oriented approach to ecological order” cautions Peter Harries-Jones, when, in fact, “the opposite is the case: far from being a mechanist, Bateson became the single most committed reformer of cybernetics …[as well as] its most trenchant critic [who] thoroughly and continually opposed its dominant face of determinism and control” (1995: 104–105).

Whereas for mechanically oriented cyberneticians such as Shannon and Wiener, the concept of “information” entailed the reduction of uncertainty and the elimination of noise within a channel (Shannon and Weaver 1949; Wiener 1973), for Bateson, “information” consists precisely in the detection of, and adaptation to, the manifold of patterns (and, equally importantly: to the patterns of patterns) present in the “noise” that is the source of the “transforms of experience” (1972: 465). Bateson’s view was the foundation for what would retrospectively come to be labeled “second-order cybernetics”, and the differences between this view and the mechanical “first-order cybernetics” born out the study of electro-mechanical servo-mechanisms are numerous and profound.

In a passage exemplifying the difference in the two approaches, Bateson observes that:

In a computer, which works by cause and effect, with one transistor triggering another, the sequences of cause and effect are used to simulate logic. Thirty years ago, we used to ask: Can a computer simulate all the processes of logic? The answer was yes, but the question was surely wrong. We should have asked: Can logic simulate all sequences of cause and effect? The answer would have been no. (1979: 58)

The world in which organisms find themselves – and the world in which such things as “organisms” themselves have come to be – is not the world of the mechanical engineering theorists, wherein “signals” can deterministically cause, or even unambiguously “point to” independently existing states of being in the world. Such a conception assumes a Cartesian subject-object duality that would make biological evolution impossible to explain naturalistically. Instead, it smuggles a God-like (or mechanical engineer-like) “controller” into the explanation of even the most apparently “self-organizing” and “self-regulating” systems, and endows the concept of “information” with an almost phlogiston-like quality that can inhere in “things” like neuronal and electrical impulses.

Bateson, by contrast, saw that cybernetic theory implied that “information” itself was a fundamentally relational concept – i.e., a “difference” between states of being that existed not “in itself”, but only such as was registered as relevant to the workings of a given system by that very system at a given moment (1979: 79). This move from a “third-person” cybernetic view to one wherein the configuration of a system that has been made “ready to receive” a as indicating b in context c under conditions d at a temporally co-ordinated time e makes relevant as areas of scientific investigation whole swathes of biological reality ignored by “command-and-control” cybernetics, such as higher-order learning, context, ambiguity, purpose, adaptive discontinuity, creative communication, and the critical importance of “relationship” per se in the systemic holism of biological interaction and recursion.

“Learning” – in the very broadest sense of the term: the active bringing into being of such relations – thus underlies the processes common to both evolutionary adaptation and cultural adaptation, concluded Bateson. And so, to investigate the processes of both adaptive and maladaptive learning across the widest possible spectrum of manifestation, Bateson undertook a series of outwardly-appearing “disparate” research projects involving monkeys, dogs, otters, dolphins, octopi, as well as human schizophrenics, alcoholics and families.

This research took place at a variety of institutes and under a variety of sponsorships, including the Langley-Porter Psychiatric Clinic in San Fransciso (1949–1951), the Veterans Administration Hospital in Palo Alto, California under the aegis of the University of California Medical School (1949–1950), Stanford University (1951–1962), the Virgin Islands Communications Research Institute (1963–1964), and the Oceanic Institute in Waimanalo, Hawaii (1964–1972), and resulted in a number of Bateson’s most famous papers on communication, psychological disorder, epistemology, family dynamics, evolutionary and cultural adaptation, and animal communication – papers which introduced such key Batesonian concepts as logical typing, heterarchy of recursion, double description, metacommunication, deutero-learning, double-bind epistemology, and the insistance upon clear explanatory distinctions between the concepts of map and territory, creatura and pleroma, and analogue and digital coding.

By 1972, it was clear to Bateson – if not to many others – that the disparate findings of his seemingly “scattered” research agenda did, in fact, add up to a coherent whole. As his research assistants at the time recall, the reason that the research projects, when seen together as a list on paper, appeared “all over the place” was because that which was being examined was, in fact “all over the place” – or ubiquitous – in the natural world (Wilder and Weakland 1981: 46). This ubiquity consists in the irreducibly interactional processes whereby any system capable of learning by trial and error can adapt itself to an ever-changing world that its own actions help to constitute, as well as to further change. In the broadest way possible of understanding such processes, Bateson finally characterized them, in 1972, as together constituting an “ecology of mind.”

Accordingly, Bateson entitled the collection of his twenty years worth of essays considering these processes, Steps to an Ecology of Mind – choosing the word “steps” to indicate the he, like so many of the authors whose work appears in this volume, considered his own life’s work at best a prolegomena to a more fully developed science of the future. However, even though it is a collection of essays selected, ordered and commented on by Bateson himself in the effort to make evident the connections between the ideas contained therein, Steps to an Ecology of Mind does not offer up its conclusions in a straightforward manner, nor does one exhaust its labyrinthine depths of insight and suggestive possibilities in a single – or even in a dozen – readings.

The publication of Steps to an Ecology of Mind did, however, establish Gregory Bateson as an original and important thinker, one whose sui generis analyses of the systemic relations underlying both nature and culture would prove to be a formative influence on a generation of interdisciplinary thinkers – not least among these being the biosemioticians Jesper Hoffmeyer, Terrence Deacon, Luis Bruni and Søren Brier. Indeed, at a 2004 conference convened by Hoffmeyer to commemorate the centenary of Gregory Bateson’s birth, interdisciplinary scholars from around the world presented the results of their own Bateson-inspired work in biology, anthropology, psychology, systems theory, linguistics and ecology. The title of the conference (and the sub-title of the proceedings which have since been published) was Gregory Bateson as a Precursor to Biosemiotics – and according to Mary Catherine Bateson, who delivered its plenary lecture, both the conference as well as the project of biosemiotics itself constitute exactly the kind of mutually engaged dialogue between scientists and humanists that her father devoted his entire life both advocating and exemplifying.

Gregory Bateson died on July 4th, 1980 at the Esalen Institute in Northern California, two years after his retirement as a Professor of Anthropology and Ethnology at the University of California in Santa Cruz. Having further developed the ideas of Steps to an Ecology of Mind in his 1979 monograph Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity, and working constantly on what would later be issued as the posthumous volumes Angels Fear (co-authored by Mary Catherine Bateson) and A Sacred Unity (co-authored by Rodney Donaldson), Bateson struggled throughout his life to develop and articulate his unique ecological vision – one which refused to rest content within the pre-given paradigms and received disciplinary frameworks of his time. It may not be too presumptuous to suppose, then, that Gregory Bateson would have looked favourably upon the project of biosemiotics that is just now coming into being, whether or not he would have agreed with all of its particular posits.

In the selection that follows, Bateson presents to a heterogeneous audience of scholars an introductory overview of some of his most foundational ideas: the distinction between systems capable of drawing distinctions, and therefore, of knowing (creatura) as compared to systems of purely mechanical interaction which have not attained such capabilities (pleroma); the difference between representation (e.g., a map) and that which exists independent of such representation (e.g., the territory that such maps are attempting to depict); and the nature of “difference” per se and its relation to the concept of “mind.” As such, this selection provides an excellent entrée into the thought of Gregory Bateson for those encountering his work for the first time – just as it continues to serve as a rich vein of insight for those now seeking to build upon these ideas in the ongoing development of biosemiotics.

Form, Substance and Difference (1972)

Let me say that it is an extraordinary honor to be here tonight, and a pleasure. I am a little frightened of you all, because I am sure there are people here who know every field of knowledge that I have touched much better than I know it. It is true that I have touched a number of fields, and I probably can face any one of you and say I have touched a field that you have not touched. But I am sure that for every field I have touched, there are people here who are much more expert than I. I am not a well-read philosopher, and philosophy is not my business. I am not a very well read anthropologist, and anthropology is not exactly my business.4

But I have tried to do something which Korzybski was very much concerned with doing, and with which the whole semantic movement has been concerned, namely, I have studied the area of impact between very abstract and formal philosophic thought on the one hand and the natural history of man and other creatures on the other. This overlap between formal premises and actual behavior is, I assert, of quite dreadful importance today. We face a world which is threatened not only with disorganization of many kinds, but also with the destruction of its environment, and we, today, are still unable to think clearly about the relations between an organism and its environment. What sort of a thing is this, which we call “organism plus environment?”

Let us go back to the original statement for which Korzybski is most famous-the statement that the map is not the territory. This statement came out of a very wide range of philosophic thinking, going back to Greece, and wriggling through the history of European thought over the last 2,000 years. In this history, there has been a sort of rough dichotomy and often deep controversy. There has been a violent enmity and bloodshed. It all starts, I suppose, with the Pythagoreans versus their predecessors, and the argument took the shape of, “Do you ask what it’s made of– earth, fire, water, etc.?” Or do you ask, “What is its pattern?”

Pythagoras stood for inquiry into pattern rather than inquiry into substance.2 That controversy has gone through the ages, and the Pythagorean half of it has, until recently, been, on the whole, the submerged half. The Gnostics followed the Pythagoreans, and the alchemists follow the Gnostics, and so on. The argument reached a sort of climax at the end of the 18th century when a Pythagorean evolutionary theory was built and then discarded – a theory which involved mind.

The evolutionary theory of the late 18th century, the Lamarckian theory, which was the first organized transformist theory of evolution, was built out of a curious historical background which has been described by Lovejoy in The Great Chain of Being. Before Lamarck, the organic world, the living world, was believed to be hierarchic in structure, with Mind at the top. The chain, or ladder, went down through the angels, through men, through the apes, down to the infusoria or protozoa, and below that to the plants and stones.

What Lamarck did was to turn that chain upside down. He observed that animals changed under environmental pressure. He was incorrect, of course, in believing that those changes were inherited, but, in any case, these changes were for him the evidence of evolution. When he turned the ladder upside down, what had been the explanation, namely, the Mind at the top, now became that which had to be explained. His problem was to explain “mind.” He was convinced about evolution, and there his interest in it stopped. So that if you read the Philosophie Zoologique (1809), you will find that the first third of it is devoted to solving the problem of evolution and the turning upside down of the taxonomy, and the rest of the book is really devoted to comparative psychology, a science which he founded. Mind was what he was really interested in. He had used habit as one of the axiomatic phenomena in his theory of evolution, and this of course also took him into the problem of comparative psychology.

Now the status of mind and pattern as the explanatory principles which, above all, required investigation was pushed out of biological thinking in the later evolutionary theories which were developed in the mid-19th century by Darwin, Huxley, etc. There were still some naughty boys, like Samuel Butler, who said that mind could not be ignored in this way – but they were weak voices, and incidentally, they never looked at organisms. I don’t think Butler ever looked at anything except his own cat, but he still knew more about evolution than some of the more conventional thinkers.

Now, at last, with the discovery of cybernetics, systems theory, information theory, and so on, we begin to have a formal base enabling us to think about mind and enabling us to think about all these problems in a way which was totally heterodox from about 1850 through World War II. What I have to talk about is how the great dichotomy of epistemology has shifted under the impact of cybernetics and information theory.

We can now say – or at any rate, can begin to say – what we think a “mind” is. In the next 20 years there will be other ways of saying it and, because the discoveries are new, I can only give you my personal version. The old versions are surely wrong, but which of the revised pictures will survive, we do not know.

Let us start from the evolutionary side. It is now empirically clear that Darwinian evolutionary theory contained a very great error in its identification of the unit of survival under natural selection. The unit which was believed to be crucial and around which the theory was set up was either the breeding individual or the family line or the subspecies or some similar homogeneous set of conspecifics. Now I suggest that the last 100 years have demonstrated empirically that if an organism or aggregate of organisms sets to work with a focus on its own survival and thinks that that is the way to select its adaptive moves, its “progress” ends up with a destroyed environment. If the organism ends up destroying its environment, it has in fact destroyed itself. And we may very easily see this process carried to its ultimate reductio ad absurdum in the next 20 years. The unit of survival is not the breeding organism, or the family line, or the society.

The old unit has already been partly corrected by the population geneticists. They have insisted that the evolutionary unit is, in fact, not homogeneous. A wild population of any species consists always of individuals whose genetic constitution varies widely. In other words, potentiality and readiness for change is already built into the survival unit. The heterogeneity of the wild population is already one half of that trial-and-error system which is necessary for dealing with the environment. The artificially homogenized populations of man’s domestic animals and plants are scarcely fit for survival. And today a further correction of the unit is necessary. The flexible environment must also be included along with the flexible organism because, as I have already said, the organism which destroys its environment destroys itself.

The unit of survival is a flexible organism-in-its-environment.

Now, let me leave evolution for a moment to consider what is the unit of mind. Let us go back to the map and the territory and ask: what is it in the territory that gets onto the map? We know the territory does not get onto the map. That is the central point about which we here are all agreed. Now, if the territory were uniform, nothing would get onto the map except its boundaries, which are the points at which it ceases to be uniform against some larger matrix. What gets onto the map, in fact, is difference, be it a difference in altitude, a difference in vegetation, a difference in population structure, difference in surface, or whatever. Differences are the things that get onto a map.

But what is a difference? A difference is a very peculiar and obscure concept. It is certainly not a thing or an event. This piece of paper is different from the wood of this lectern. There are many differences between them-of color, texture, shape, etc. But if we start to ask about the localization of those differences, we get into trouble. Obviously the difference between the paper and the wood is not in the paper; it is obviously not in the wood; it is obviously not in the space between them, and it is obviously not in the time between them. (Difference which occurs across time is what we call “change.”)

A difference, then, is an abstract matter.

In the hard sciences, effects are, in general, caused by rather concrete conditions or events-impacts, forces, and so forth. But when you enter the world of communication, organization, etc., you leave behind that whole world in which effects are brought about by forces and impacts and energy exchange. You enter a world in which “effects” – and I am not sure one should still use the same word – are brought about by differences. That is: they are brought about by the sort of “thing” that gets onto the map from the territory. This is difference.

Difference travels from the wood and paper into my retina. It then gets picked up and worked on by this fancy piece of computing machinery in my head.

The whole energy relation is different. In the world of mind, nothing-that which is not-can be a cause. In the hard sciences, we ask for causes and we expect them to exist and be “real.” But remember that zero is different from one, and because is different from one, zero can be a cause in the psychological world, the world of communication. The letter which you do not write can get an angry reply; and the income tax form which you do not fill in can trigger the Internal Revenue boys into energetic action, because they, too, have their breakfast, lunch, tea and dinner and can react with energy which they derive from their metabolism. The letter which never existed is no source of energy.

It follows, of course, that we must change our whole way of thinking about mental and communicational process. The ordinary analogies of energy theory which people borrow from the hard sciences to provide a conceptual frame upon which they try to build theories about psychology and behavior-that entire Procrustean structure-is non-sense. It is in error.

I suggest to you, now, that the word “idea,” in its most elementary sense, is synonymous with “difference.” Kant, in the Critique of Judgment-if I understand him correctly – asserts that the most elementary aesthetic act is the selection of a fact. He argues that in a piece of chalk there are an infinite number of potential facts. The Ding an sich, the piece of chalk, can never enter into communication or mental process because of this infinitude. The sensory receptors cannot accept it; they filter it out. What they do is to select certain facts out of the piece of chalk, which then become, in modern terminology, information.

I suggest that Kant’s statement can be modified to say that there is an infinite number of differences around and within the piece of chalk. There are differences between the chalk and the rest of the universe, between the chalk and the sun or the moon. And within the piece of chalk, there is for every molecule an infinite number of differences between its location and the locations in which it might have been. Of this infinitude, we select a very limited number-which become information. In fact, what we mean by information-the elementary unit of information-is a difference which makes a difference, and is able to make a difference because the neural pathways, along which it travels and is continually transformed, are themselves provided with energy. The pathways are ready to be triggered. We may even say that the question is already implicit in them.

There is, however, an important contrast between most of the pathways of information inside the body and most of the pathways outside it. The differences between the paper and the wood are first transformed into differences in the propagation of light or sound and travel in this form to my sensory end organs. The first part of their journey is energized in the ordinary hard-science way, from “behind.” But when the differences enter my body by triggering an end organ, this type of travel is replaced by travel which is energized at every step by the metabolic energy latent in the protoplasm which receives the difference, recreates or transforms it, and passes it on.

When I strike the head of a nail with a hammer, an impulse is transmitted to its point. But it is a semantic error, a misleading metaphor, to say that what travels in an axon is an “impulse.” It could correctly be called “news of a difference.”

Be that as it may, this contrast between internal and external pathways is not absolute. Exceptions occur on both sides of the line. Some external chains of events are energized by relays, and some chains of events internal to the body are energized from “behind.” Notably, the mechanical interaction of muscles can be used as a computational model.3

In spite of these exceptions, it is still broadly true that the coding and transmission of differences outside the body is very different from the coding and transmission inside, and this difference must be mentioned because it can lead us into error. We commonly think of the external “physical world” as somehow separate from an internal “mental world.” I believe that this division is based on the contrast in coding and transmission inside and outside the body.

The mental world-the mind-the world of information processing-is not limited by the skin.

Let us now go back to the notion that the transform of a difference traveling in a circuit is an elementary idea. If this be correct, let us ask what a mind is. We say the map is different from the territory. But what is the territory? Operationally, somebody went out with a retina or a measuring stick and made representations which were then put upon paper. What is on the paper map is a representation of what was in the retinal representation of the man who made the map: and as you push the question back, what you find is an infinite regress, an infinite series of maps. The territory never sets in at all. The territory is Ding an sich and you can’t do anything with it. Always the process of representation will filter it out so that the mental world is only maps of maps of maps, ad infinitum.4 All “phenomena” are literally “appearances.”

Or we can follow the chain forward. I receive various sorts of mappings which I call data or information. Upon receipt of these I act. But my actions, my muscular contractions, are transforms of differences in the input material. And I receive again data which are transforms of my actions. We get thus a picture of the mental world which has somehow jumped loose from our conventional picture of the physical world.

This is not new, and for historic background we go again to the alchemists and Gnostics. Carl Jung once wrote a very curious little book, which I recommend to all of you. It is called Septem Sermones ad Mortuos, Seven Sermons to the Dead.5 In his Memories, Dreams, Reflections, Jung tells us that his house was full of ghosts, and they were noisy. They bothered him, they bothered his wife, and they bothered the children. In the vulgar jargon of psychiatry we might say that everybody in the house was as psychotic as hooty owls, and for quite good reason. If you get your epistemology confused, you go psychotic, and Jung was going through an epistemological crisis. So he sat down at his desk and picked up a pen and started to write. When he started to write the ghosts all disappeared, and he wrote this little book. From this he dates all his later insight. He signed it “Basilides,” who was a famous Gnostic in Alexandria in the 2nd century.

He points out that there are two worlds. We might call them two worlds of explanation. He names them the pleroma and the creatura, these being Gnostic terms. The pleroma is the world in which events are caused by forces and impacts and in which there are no “distinctions.” Or, as I would say, no “differences.” In the creature, effects are brought about precisely by difference. In fact, this is the same old dichotomy between mind and substance.

We can study and describe the pleroma, but, always, the distinctions which we draw are attributed by us to the pleroma. The pleroma knows nothing of difference and distinction; it contains no “ideas” in the sense in which I am using the word. When we study and describe the creatura, we must correctly identify those differences which are effective within it.

I suggest that “pleroma” and “creatura” are words which we could usefully adopt and it is therefore worthwhile to look at the bridges which exist between these two “worlds.” It is an oversimplification to say that the “hard sciences” deal only with the pleroma and that the sciences of the mind deal only with creatura.

There is more to it than that.

First, consider the relation between energy and negative entropy. The classical Carnot heat engine consists of a cylinder of gas with a piston. This cylinder is alternately placed in contact with a container of hot gas and with a container of cold gas. The gas in the cylinder alternately expands and contracts as it is heated or cooled by the hot and cold sources. The piston is thus driven up and down.

But with each cycle of the engine, the difference between the temperature of the hot source and that of the cold source is reduced. When this difference becomes zero, the engine will stop.

The physicist, describing the pleroma, will write equations to translate the temperature difference into “available energy,” which he will call “negative entropy,” and will go on from there.

The analyst of the creatura will note that the whole system is a sense organ which is triggered by temperature difference. He will call this difference which makes a difference “information” or “negative entropy.” For him, this is only a special case in which the effective difference happens to be a matter of energetics. He is equally interested in all differences which can activate some sense organ. For him, any such difference is “negative entropy.”

Or consider the phenomenon which the neurophysiologists call “synaptic summation.” What is observed is that in certain cases, when two neurons, A and B have synaptic connection to a third neuron, C the firing of neither neuron by itself is sufficient to fire C; but that when both A and B fire simultaneously (or nearly so), their combined “impulses” will cause C to fire.

In pleromatic language, this combining of events to surmount a threshold is called “summation.”

But from the point of view of the student of creatura (and the neurophysiologist must surely have one foot in the pleroma and the other in creatura), this is not summation at all. What happens is that the system operates to create differences. There are two differentiated classes of firings by A: those firings which are accompanied by B and those which are unaccompanied. Similarly there are two classes of firings by B.

The so-called “summation,” when both fire, is not an additive process from this point of view. It is the formation of a logical products-a process of fractionation rather than summation.

The creatura is thus the world seen as mind, wherever such a view is appropriate. And wherever this view is appropriate, there arises a species of complexity which is absent from pleromatic description: creatural description is always hierarchic.

I have said that what gets from territory to map is transforms of difference and that these (somehow selected) differences are elementary ideas.

But there are differences between differences.

Every effective difference denotes a demarcation, a line of classification, and all classification is hierarchic. In other words, differences are themselves to be differentiated and classified.

In this context I will only touch lightly on the matter of classes of difference, because to carry the matter further would land us in problems of Principlia Mathematica.

Let me invite you to a psychological experience, if only to demonstrate the frailty of the human computer. First note differences in texture are different (a) from differences in color. Now note that differences in size are different (b) from differences in shape. Similarly ratios are different (c) from subtractive differences.

Now let me invite you, as disciples of Korzybski, to define the differences between “different (a),”different (b),” and “different (c)” in the above paragraph.

The computer in the human head boggles at the task.

But not all classes of difference are as awkward to handle.

One such class you are all familiar with. Namely, the class of differences which are created by the process of transformation whereby the differences immanent in the territory become differences immanent in the map. In the corner of every serious map you will find these rules of transformation spelled out-usually in words. Within the human mind, it is absolutely essential to recognize the differences of this class, and, indeed, it is these that form the central subject matter of Science and Sanity.

An hallucination or a dream image is surely a transformation of something. But of what? And by what rules of transformation?

Lastly there is that hierarchy of differences which biologists call “levels.” I mean such differences as that between a cell and a tissue, between tissue and organ, organ and organism, and organism and society.

These are the hierarchies of units or Gestalten, in which each sub-unit is a part of the unit of next larger scope. And, always in biology, this difference or relationship which I call “part of ” is such that certain differences in the part have informational effect upon the larger unit, and vice versa.

Having stated this relationship between biological part and whole, I can now go on from the notion of creatura as Mind in general to the question of what is a mind.

What do I mean by “my” mind?

I suggest that the delimitation of an individual mind must always depend upon what phenomena we wish to understand or explain. Obviously there are lots of message pathways outside the skin, and these and the messages which they carry must be included as part of the mental system whenever they are relevant.

Consider a tree and a man and an axe. We observe that the axe flies through the air and makes certain sorts of gashes in a pre-existing cut in the side of the tree. If now we want to explain this set of phenomena, we shall be concerned with differences in the cut face of the tree, differences in the retina of the man, differences in his central nervous system, differences in his efferent neural messages, differences in the behavior of his muscles, differences in how the axe flies, to the differences which the axe then makes on the face of the tree. Our explanation (for certain purposes) will go round and round that circuit. In principle, if you want to explain or understand anything in human behavior, you are always dealing with total circuits, completed circuits. This is the elementary cybernetic thought.

The elementary cybernetic system with its messages in circuit is, in fact, the simplest unit of mind; and the transform of a difference travelling in a circuit is the elementary idea. More complicated systems are perhaps more worthy to be called mental systems, but essentially this is what we are talking about. The unit which shows the characteristic of trial and error will be legitimately called a mental system.

But what about “me”? Suppose I am a blind man, and I use a stick. I go tap, tap, tap. Where do I start? Is my mental system bounded at the handle of the stick? Is it bounded by my skin? Does it start halfway up the stick? Does it start at the tip of the stick? But these are nonsense questions. The stick is a pathway along which transforms of difference are being transmitted. The way to delineate the system is to draw the limiting line in such a way that you do not cut any of these pathways in ways which leave things inexplicable. If what you are trying to explain is a given piece of behavior, such as the locomotion of the blind man, then, for this purpose, you will need the street, the stick, the man; the street, the stick, and so on, round and round.

But when the blind man sits down to eat his lunch, his stick and its messages will no longer be relevant-if it is his eating that you want to understand.

And in addition to what I have said to define the individual mind, I think it necessary to include the relevant parts of memory and data “banks.” After all, the simplest cybernetic circuit can be said to have a memory of a dynamic kind-not based upon static storage but upon the travel of information around the circuit. The behavior of the governor of a steam engine at Time 2 is partly determined by what it did at Time 1 – where the interval between Time I and Time 2 is that time necessary for the information to complete the circuit.

We get a picture, then, of mind as synonymous with cybernetic systemthe relevant total information-processing, trial-and-error completing unit. And we know that within Mind in the widest sense there will be hierarchy of sub-systems, any one of which we can call an individual mind.

But this picture is precisely the same as the picture which I arrived at in discussing the unit of evolution. I believe that this identity is the most important generalization which I have to offer you tonight.

In considering units of evolution, I argued that you have at each step to include the completed pathways outside the protoplasmic aggregate, be it DNA-in-the-cell, or cell-in-the-body, or body-in-the-environment. The hierarchic structure is not new. Formerly we talked about the breeding individual or the family line or the taxon, and so on. Now each step of the hierarchy is to be thought of as a system, instead of a chunk cut off and visualized as against the surrounding matrix.

This identity between the unit of mind and the unit of evolutionary survival is of very great importance, not only theoretical, but also ethical.

It means, you see, that I now localize something which I am calling “Mind” immanent in the large biological system-the ecosystem. Or, if I draw the system boundaries at a different level, then mind is immanent in the total evolutionary structure. If this identity between mental and evolutionary units is broadly right, then we face a number of shifts in our thinking.

First, let us consider ecology. Ecology has currently two faces to it: the face which is called bio-energetics-the economics of energy and materials within a coral reef, a redwood forest, or a city-and, second, an economics of information, of entropy, neg-entropy, etc. These two do not fit together very well precisely because the units are differently bounded in the two sorts of ecology. In bio-energetics it is natural and appropriate to think of units bounded at the cell membrane, or at the skin; or of units composed of sets of conspecific individuals. These boundaries are then the frontiers at which measurements can be made to determine the additive-subtractive budget of energy for the given unit. In contrast, informational or entropic ecology deals with the budgeting of pathways and of probability. The resulting budgets are fractionating (not subtractive.) The boundaries must enclose, not cut, the relevant pathways.

Moreover, the very meaning of “survival” becomes different when we stop talking about the survival of something bounded by the skin and start to think of the survival of the system of ideas in circuit. The contents of the skin are randomized at death and the pathways within the skin are randomized. But the ideas, under further transformation, may go on out in the world in books or works of art. Socrates as a bio-energetic individual is dead. But much of him still lives as a component in the contemporary ecology of ideas.6

It is also clear that theology becomes changed and perhaps renewed. The Mediterranean religions for 5,000 years have swung to and fro between immanence and transcendence. In Babylon the gods were transcendent on the tops of hills; in Egypt, there was god immanent in Pharaoh; and Christianity is a complex combination of these two beliefs.

The cybernetic epistemology which I have offered you would suggest a new approach. The individual mind is immanent but not only in the body, It is immanent also in pathways and messages outside the body; and there is a larger Mind of which the individual mind is only a sub-system. This larger Mind is comparable to God and is perhaps what some people mean by “God,” but it is still immanent in the total interconnected social system and planetary ecology.

Freudian psychology expanded the concept of mind inwards to include the whole communication system within the body-the autonomic, the habitual and the vast range of unconscious process. What I am saying expands mind outwards. And both of these changes reduce the scope of the conscious self. A certain humility becomes appropriate, tempered by the dignity or joy of being part of something much bigger. A part-if you will-of God.

If you put God aside and set him vis-à-vis his creation and if you have the idea that you are created in his image, you will logically and naturally see yourself as outside and against the things around you. And as you arrogate all mind to yourself, you will see the world around you as mindless and therefore not entitled to moral or ethical consideration. The environment will seem to be yours to exploit. Your survival unit will be you and your folks or conspecifics against the environment of other social units, other races and the brutes and vegetables.

If this is your estimate of your relation to nature and you have an advanced technology, your likelihood of survival will be that of a snowball in hell. You will die either of the toxic by-products of your own hate, or, simply, of over-population and over-grazing.

The raw materials of the world are finite.

If I am right, the whole of our thinking about what we are and what other people are has got to be restructured. This is not funny, and I do not know how long we have to do it in. If we continue to operate on the premises that were fashionable in the pre-cybernetic era, and which were especially underlined and strengthened during the Industrial Revolution, which seemed to validate the Darwinian unit of survival, we may have 20 or 30 years before the logical reductio ad absurdum of our old positions destroys us. Nobody knows how long we have, under the present system, before some disaster strikes us, more serious than the destruction of any group of nations. The most important task today is, perhaps, to learn to think in the new way. Let me say that I don’t know how to think that way. Intellectually, I can stand here and I can give you a reasoned exposition of this matter; but if I am cutting down a tree, I still think “Gregory Bateson” is cutting down the tree. I am cutting down the tree. “Myself” is to me still an excessively concrete object, different from the rest of what I have been calling “mind.”

The step to realizing-to making habitual-the other way of thinking-that one naturally thinks that way when one reaches out for a glass of water or cuts down a tree-that step is not an easy one.

And, quite seriously, I suggest to you that we should trust no policy decisions which emanate from persons who do not yet have that habit.

There are experiences and disciplines which may help me to imagine what it would be like to have this habit of correct thought. Under LSD, I have experienced, as have many others, the disappearance of the division between self and the music to which I was listening. The perceiver and the thing perceived become strangely united into a single entity. And this state is surely more correct than the state in which it seems that “I hear the music.” The sound, after all, is Ding an sich, but my perception of it is a part of mind.

It is told of Johann Sebastian Bach that when somebody asked him how he played so divinely, he answered, “I play the notes, in order, as they are written. It is God who makes the music.” But not many of us can claim Bach’s correctness of epistemology-or that of William Blake who knew that the Poetic Imagination was the only reality.

The poets have known these things all through the ages, but the rest of us have gone astray into all sorts of false reifications of the “self” and separations between the “self” and “experience.”

For me another clue-another moment when the nature of mind was for a moment clear-was provided by the famous experiments of Adalbert Ames, Jr. These are optical illusions in depth perception. As Ames’ guinea pig, you discover that those mental processes by which you create the world in three-dimensional perspective are within your mind but totally unconscious and utterly beyond voluntary control. Of course, we all know that this is so-that mind creates the images which “we” then see. But still it is a profound epistemological shock to have direct experience of this which we always knew.

Please do not misunderstand me. When I say that the poets have always known these things or that most of mental process is unconscious, I am not advocating a greater use of emotion or a lesser use of intellect. Of course, if what I am saying tonight is approximately true, then our ideas about the relation between thought and emotion need to be revised. If the boundaries of the “ego” are wrongly drawn or even totally fictitious, then it may be nonsense to regard emotions or dreams or our unconscious computations of perspective as “ego-alien.”

We live in a strange epoch when many psychologists try to “humanize” their science by preaching an anti-intellectual gospel. They might, as sensibly, try to physicalize physics by discarding the tools of mathematics.

It is the attempt to separate intellect from emotion that is monstrous, and I suggest that it is equally monstrous-and dangerous-to attempt to separate the external mind from the internal. Or to separate mind from body.

Blake noted that “A tear is an intellectual thing,” and Pascal asserted that “The heart has its reasons of which the reason knows nothing”; and we need not be put off by the fact that the reasonings of the heart (or of the hypothalamus) are accompanied by sensations of joy or grief. These computations are concerned with matters which are vital to mammals – namely, matters of relationship, by which I mean love, hate, respect, dependency, spectatorship, performance, dominance, and so on. These are central to the life of any mammal and I see no objection to calling these computations “thought” – though certainly the units of relational computation are different from the units which we use to compute about isolable things.

But there are bridges between the one sort of thought and the other, and it seems to me that the artists and poets are specifically concerned with these bridges. It is not that art is the expression of the unconscious, but rather that it is concerned with the relation between the levels of mental process. From a work of art it may be possible to analyze out some unconscious thought of the artist, but I believe that, for example, Freud’s analysis of Leonardo’s “Virgin on the Knees of St. Anne” precisely misses the point of the whole exercise. Artistic skill is the combining of many levels of mind-unconscious, conscious and external-to make a statement of their combination. It is not a matter of expressing a single level.

Similarly, Isadora Duncan, when she said “If I could say it, I would not have to dance it,” was talking nonsense, because her dance was about combinations of saying and moving.

Indeed, if what I have been saying is at all correct, the whole base of aesthetics will need to be re-examined. It seems that we link feelings not only to the computations of the heart but also to the computations in the external pathways of the mind. It is when we recognize the operations of creatura in the external world that we are aware of “beauty” or “ugliness.” The “primrose by the river’s brim” is beautiful because we are aware that the combination of differences which constitutes its appearance could only be achieved by information processing, i.e., by thought. We recognize another mind within our own external mind.

And last, there is death. It is understandable that, in a civilization which separates mind from body, we should either try to forget death or to make mythologies about the survival of transcendent mind. But if mind is immanent not only in those pathways of information which are located inside the body but also in external pathways, then death takes on a different aspect. The individual nexus of pathways which I call “me” is no longer so precious because that nexus is only part of a larger mind.

The ideas which seemed to be me can also become immanent in you. May they survive – if true.


  1. 1

    A lecture delivered at the 19th Annual Alfred Korzybski Memorial Lecture Series at the Oceanic Institute in Hawaii, on January 9, 1970.

  2. 2

    R. G. Collingwood has given a clear account of the Pythagorean position in The Idea of Nature (Oxford 1945).

  3. 3

    It is interesting to note that digital computers depend upon transmission of energy “from behind” to send “news” along wire from one relay to the next. But each relay has its own energy source. Analogic computers, e.g., tide machines and the like, are commonly entirely driven by energy “from behind.” Either type of energization can be used for computational purposes.

  4. 4

    Or we may spell the matter out and say that at every step, as a difference is transformed and propagated along its pathway, the embodiment of the difference before the step is a “territory” of which the embodiment after the step is a “map.” The map-territory relation obtains at every step.

  5. 5

    Written in 1916, translated by H. G. Baynes and privately circulated in 1925. Republished by Stuart & Watkins, London, and by Random House, 1961. In later work, Jung seems to have lost the clarity of the Seven Sermons. In his “Answer to Job,” the archetypes are said to be “pleromatic.” It is surely true, however, the constellations of ideas may seem subjectively to resemble “forces” when their ideational character is unrecognized.

  6. 6

    For the phrase “ecology of ideas,” I am indebted to Sir Geoffrey Vickers’ essay “The Ecology of Ideas” in Value Systems and Social Process (Basic Books 1968). For a more formal discussion of the survival of ideas, see Gordon Pask’s remarks in Wenner-Gren Conference on “The Effects of Conscious Purpose on Human Adaptation,” 1968.



  1. 1.

    Writing in 1971, at age sixty-five, Gregory Bateson would dedicate what would become his most famous work, the collection of essays entitled Steps to an Ecology of Mind, in part to: “William Bateson, my father, who was certainly ready in 1894 to receive the cybernetic idea” (1972: xxii).

  2. 2.

    The cybernetic concept of “feedback” had not yet been formally developed at the time that Bateson was writing Naven in 1936 (cf., though, Uexküll 1928), and Bateson credits his later reception of the idea through the work of Warren McCulloch in 1942 as a turning-point in the development of his understanding.

  3. 3.

    The onset of World War II had made it difficult for scholars such as Mead to publish their research findings in a timely fashion in academic journals, and Balinese Character is in many ways more Mead’s own summative analysis of her findings than it is a true intellectual collaboration with Bateson, whose central role in the project was to devise effective, unintrusive, and scientifically responsible methods of filming naturally occurring social interaction, notes Peter Harries-Jones (2009: p.c.).

  4. 4.

    [As noted in the original,1 this chapter is a transcript of the 19th Annual Alfred Korzybski Memorial Lecture that Gregory Bateson delivered at the Oceanic Institute in Hawaii on January 9, 1970.]

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2009

Authors and Affiliations

  • Donald Favareau
    • 1
  1. 1.National University of Singapore, University Scholars ProgrammeSingaporeSingapore

Personalised recommendations