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Cybernetics & Human Knowing: A Journal of Second-order Cybernetics Autopoiesis and Cyber-Semiotics
Gregory Bateson. Essays for an Ecology of Ideas

by Søren Brier, Ed.
Imprint Academic, Exeter, UK, 2005
Volume 12, No. 1-2
182 pp. illus. Price, n/a
ISBN: 1-84540-032-1.

Reviewed by Rob Harle (Australia)


Cybernetics and Human Knowing
, published quarterly, is a transdisciplinary journal concerning second-order cybernetics and cyber-semiotic approaches to understanding. "The journal is devoted to the new understandings of the self-organising processes of information in human knowing that have arisen through the cybernetics of cybernetics" (p. 2). The issue under review (Volume 12, No. 1 & 2) is dedicated to Gregory Bateson (1904-1980) an Anthropologist, Social Scientist, Cyberneticist and, arguably, one of the most important social scientists of the twentieth century. His two most profound works were Mind & Nature and Steps to an Ecology of Mind—hence, this journal’s sub-title, Essays for an Ecology of Ideas. Bateson, whilst not actually coining the term cybernetics himself, was a pioneer in this discipline together with colleagues, Heinz von Foerster and Norbert Wiener, among others. These great thinkers did not necessarily call themselves cyberneticists and worked in fields as diverse as engineering, artificial intelligence, mathematics, anthropology, and in Bateson’s later years, psychotherapy and anti-psychiatry, specifically.

The title of the Foreword, Patterns That Connect Patterns That Connect, seems like an infinite regression, but it is more an infinite expansion, which helps us understand how Bateson’s "new systems thinking" covers such diverse areas of human knowing. The hard-scientific "way of knowing", of reductionism and objective observation and treating objects in isolation was the antithesis of Bateson’s project. Nothing exists in isolation, mind is not separate from body, politics are not separate from physics, from poetry, from biology, from life. Bateson had a "primary interest in understanding wholeness, rather than someone interested in pathology" (p. 14). This approach was exemplified in his attempt to understand such devastating illnesses, such as schizophrenia.

The 11 essays in this volume, by authors with background disciplines as diverse as Bateson’s interests, are offered as, "a gift to a creative spirit on his 100th birthday". The essays cover disciplines, such as communications, ecology, anthropology, philosophy, family therapy, and education and learning. Some are orientated towards extending Bateson’s intellectual legacy, whilst others, such as The Double Bind: Pathology and Creativity written by Bateson’s daughter Mary, touch on quite personal aspects of Bateson, the man and father.

It goes without saying that this is a specialist journal and although all the contributors write enthusiastically and some very creatively—Douglas Flemons, May The pattern Be with You is a real hoot—the subject matter is quite complex and probably not all that accessible for the lay reader. The journal is illustrated with some charming black & white images, mainly concerning patterns in nature, together with a smattering of extremely good poetry. The American Society for Cybernetics (a society for the art and science of human understanding) also has its column that reports on the ASC meeting in Toronto with its distinctive Batesonian flavour.

This special issue of the Cybernetics and Human Knowing Journal is a wonderful tribute to a great thinker and visionary, a man who was not at all afraid to think "outside of the box" or to challenge any existing beliefs that did not have a basis in interconnectedness. "What pattern connects the crab to the lobster and the orchid to the primrose and all four of them to me? And me to you?" he asks in Mind and Nature. I believe as we increasingly come to understand this interconnectedness of all things, Bateson’s work will gain even more respect and the recognition it deserves.



Updated 1st February 2006

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