This is a draft of a chapter published under the same title in the book called - ''Gregory Bateson'' - edited by Marco Deriu and published recently by Bruno Mondadori in February 2000.


On The Backwards Epistemology Of Misguided Psychotherapists: - When Will They Learn To See The Patterns Of Relationship And Stop Talking Nonsense?


Vincent Kenny



This chapter re-presents a number of Bateson's important ideas about interpersonal communications. There are three particular ideas chosen for elaboration (a) common misunderstandings of human communications, (b) common misunderstandings of human relationships, and (c) common misunderstandings of human patterns of living. In correspondence with these three I present Bateson's suggestions for making three major shifts in our perceptions, attitudes and relationships: Shifting from (a) a focus on the 'control' of others to instead optimising everyone's 'participativeness' ; (b) Shifting from a focus on treating people as machines to relating with them in spontaneity; and (c) Shifting from a focus on the unilateral manipulation of others to creating genuine social patterns of co-evolution.




Bateson's own conversational style - a precise pattern of relationships
The Mind-Nature Aesthetic

METALOGUE: - 'Why do things have outlines?'

Misunderstanding Networks of Conversations
A Whole System of Interactions
Our Exosomatic Mind: - Madness in Mind = Madness in Nature


Misunderstanding Human Relationships
The Problem with Metaphors
'Metaphor is right at the bottom of being alive'
The machine metaphor is a major flaw in our thinking
Seeking interconnectivity - 'relationship should be the basis of all definition'
Epistemology Backwards - Misunderstanding Relationships


Misunderstanding Human Patterning
The Need to Shift to Perceiving Pattern rather than Quantities
The Manipulation of Quantity and Our Blindness to Patterning
The Error of defining Life, Satisfaction, and Meaning as 'quantity'
The Toxicity of Maximising Instead of Optimising



So, Finally, How 'Free' is Free-Will?





This chapter begins with an outline of some of the important issues for humans as a communicative species, especially regarding the different ways that we can learn to treat one another within our networks of conversations. Many of these issues are illustrated by Bateson's own choice of style for communicating his ideas to others. So let us start here.

Bateson's own conversational style - a precise pattern of relationships

Bateson's own conversational style was something which he unfolded in such a way as to render it impossible for his listeners to detect a facile or conclusive outline to his stories. Many people were unable to follow him, and many people find his writings exceedingly difficult to understand. He himself was well aware of being seen as someone who 'knows, but won't tell you'. He admitted:-

'I mean one talks about frog's eyes or any part of the story you want to talk about, but you don't really let on that if you once let the entire story out of the bag, their paradigms will all be broken. You can let them have a piece, this piece and that; and if they get three pieces they can go away and get into some intellectual trouble and that's fine. … You see, I don't particularly want them to make the paradigm shift when I'm talking to them. I want them to discover that.'
(Gregory Bateson, 1976a).

His personal style was consistent with his theory - i.e. that it is better for us to not see the outlines of conversations in order to optimise each person's possibilities for creative participation. Hence it is better to speak and listen in a more circular, roundabout, circumspect, metaphorical manner, thus keeping obscure or hidden various features of the context in question. Bateson comments upon all this in one of his 'father-daughter' Metalogues, and gives us another partial answer for his irritating 'elusiveness':-

Daughter: All right. So where would you attach the phenomena of beauty and ugliness and consciousness?
Father: And don't forget the sacred. That's another matter that was not dealt with in the book.
Daughter: Please, Daddy. Don't do that. When we get near to asking a question, you jump away from it. There's always another question it seems. If you could answer one question. Just one.
Father: No. You don't understand. What does E. E. Cummings say? ''Always the more beautiful answer who asks the more difficult question.'' Something like that. You see I am not asking another question each time. I am making the same question bigger. The sacred (whatever that means) is surely related (somehow) to the beautiful (whatever that means). And if we could say how they are related, we could perhaps say what the words mean. Or perhaps that would never be necessary. Every time we add a related piece to the question, we get more clues to what sort of answer we should expect.'' (Bateson, 1980, p.236)

The Mind-Nature Aesthetic

Here we see his vision of the necessary relations between consciousness, beauty, and the sacred, and his unwillingness to rush into this domain with simple and simplifying questions which for Bateson would be more than just stupidity, but would be a form of sacrilege by committing sins against three main principles - against consciousness, against the sacred, and against aesthetics. Moreover, he warns us against the error of becoming 'conscious' (in a reductionist way) of the nature of the sacred or of the nature of beauty. He says,

''It is consciousness running around like a dog with its tongue out - literally cynicism - that asks the too simple question and shapes up the vulgar answer.'' (Bateson, 1980, P. 236)

Returning to our examination of Bateson's own highly personalised style of communication, we can consider what Capra says about his own experiences with Bateson -

''My conversations with Gregory Bateson were of a very special kind, owing to the special way in which he himself presented his ideas in the form of stories, anecdotes, jokes, and seemingly scattered observations, without spelling anything out in full. Bateson did not like to spell things out in full, knowing, perhaps, that a better understanding is reached when you are able to grasp the connections yourself, in a creative act, without being told.'' (Capra, 1988, p.75)

Bateson's style was to tell illustrative stories - to say, indirectly - indicating the general area in which the pattern to be discerned could be discerned with some personal effort. Bateson was a type of travelling salesman - taking out his sample stories tacked to bits of cardboard - holding up his specimens, crabs, shells, parables, and analogies for bringing forth comparisons. These served as indicators for the pattern which connects. He was saying - 'look at all these stories, now how about joining up the dots between them and see what pattern emerges?'

This 'sampler' approach served as an example to be imitated - in terms of how best to communicate the incommunicable. His work on the 'sacred' shows this clearly. (See Angels Fear, 1988)

His own communication style held itself up as a model or a pattern of interpersonal interactions to be imitated, copied, replicated gratis. These were free samples. Thus we also have the 'metalogues' - holding themselves up as illustrations of themselves.

Capra comments:-

'Bateson's way of presenting his ideas was an essential and intrinsic part of his teaching. Because of his special technique of blending his ideas with the style of presentation, very few people understood him. In fact, as R.D. Laing pointed out at a seminar he gave at Esalen in honour of Bateson: ''Even the few people who thought they understood him, he did not think understood him. Very, very few people, he thought, understood him.'' ….

'To the uninitiated, to somebody who could not follow the complex patterns, Bateson's style of presentation often sounded like pure rambling, but it was much more than that. The matrix of his collection of stories was a coherent and precise pattern of relationships, a pattern which for him embodied great beauty. The more complex the pattern became, the more beauty it exhibited. ''The world gets much prettier as it gets more complicated.'' He would say. '' (Capra, 1988, p. 75-79)

In what follows in Part 2, I take the Bateson Metalogue 'Why do things have outlines?' as our starting point for a more elaborate analysis of 'communicational styles'. This Metalogue contains several clues for the understanding of conversations as healthy-making or unhealthy-making environments for those who participate in them - with special relevance for what is called 'psychotherapy'. In particular I want to derive and elaborate upon three important shifts in our thinking and acting which Bateson demonstrated as crucial to any constructive changes in our social organisations.

The three crucially important shifts in our thinking and attitudes are these: -

1 - The Shift to a new style of interpersonal communication in networks of conversations

2 - The Shift of attention from seeing 'objects' to seeing relations

3 - The Shift from perceiving quantities to perceiving pattern



PART 2 - METALOGUE: - 'Why do things have outlines?'

Here my intention is to examine this brief Metalogue for some clues to our common misunderstandings of human communications, and particularly to our ways of creating networks of conversations which offer very different qualities of experience.

The first clue from the Metalogue is about conversational closure and boundaries, and how the interplay between these two features generate very different networks of conversations. Here we will see the possibilities of opening out alternative understandings of conversational forms in which Bateson is underlining the need for a shift to a new style of interpersonal communication, based on optimising participativeness rather than controlling people's speech.

Here is the entire Metalogue.


''Metalogue: Why do things have outlines?

Daughter: What did you mean by a conversation having an outline? Has this conversation had an outline?

Father: Oh, surely, yes. But we cannot see it yet because the conversation isn't finished. You cannot ever see it while you're in the middle of it. Because if you could see it, you would be predictable - like the machine. And I would be predictable - and the two of us together would be predictable -

Daughter: But I don't understand. You say it is important to be clear about things. And you get angry about people who blur the outlines. And yet we think its better to be unpredictable and not to be like a machine. And you say that we cannot see the outlines of our conversation till it's over. Then it doesn't matter whether we're clear or not. Because we cannot do anything about it then.

Father: Yes, I know - and I don't understand it myself ….But anyway, who wants to do anything about it. '' (Bateson, 1972, p. 32)


Misunderstanding Networks of Conversations

Examining the Metalogue in more detail we can abstract the first interpersonal, conversational issue as being the tension between 'Being Controlling of Others in Conversations' versus 'Encouraging Active Participation in Conversations'

Metalogue Issue 1 - 'Control' versus 'Participation'

Daughter: What did you mean by a conversation having an outline? Has this conversation had an outline?

Father: Oh, surely, yes. But we cannot see it yet because the conversation isn't finished. You cannot ever see it while you're in the middle of it. Because if you could see it, you would be predictable - like the machine. And I would be predictable - and the two of us together would be predictable -

The 'outline of the conversation' referred to by Bateson in this quote is a crucial feature (or marker) of the type of conversation that is going on. In an open dynamic engagement between people it is impossible to perceive the outline because it is being generated by the moment-to-moment interactions among the participants. However, in a closed and pre-emptive conversation (oriented to intentional control of people and outcomes), the outline seems all too clear and predictable, appearing as a constraining, oppressive and channelling presence which excludes 'personal' contributions. Our speech is 'controlled'.


A Whole System of Interactions

The opposite contrasting value to 'control of others' is the notion of the 'Participativeness' of all members in as full a manner as possible in the constitution of their larger whole relational system. Bateson underlines the importance of seeing the whole system of interactions among individuals, all of whom are embedded in this larger whole, and how our personal survival depends on this larger network of conversations. He says -

''In this world, indeed, I, as a material object, have no relevance and, in this sense, no reality. ''I'', however, exist in the communicational world as an essential element in the syntax of my experience and in the experience of others, and the communication of others may damage my identity, even to the point of breaking up the organisation of my experience.….

The contexts have communicational reality only insofar as they are effective as messages, i.e., insofar as they are represented or reflected (correctly or with distortion) in multiple parts of the communicational system which we are studying; and this system is not the physical individual but a wide network of pathways of messages. Some of these pathways happen to be located outside the physical individual, others inside; but the characteristics of the system are in no way dependent upon any boundary lines which we may superpose upon the communicational map.'' (Bateson, 1972, p. 251)


Our Exosomatic Mind: - Madness in Mind = Madness in Nature

From Bateson's point of view there must be a Mind/Nature aesthetic in our model. This is a necessary unity. To appreciate this we need to understand that 'mind' is not confined to the human skull, or within the human bodily frame. Rather, 'mind' is a phenomenon in which we take part, as it passes, extends through, or partakes of our participation on its journey along its circuits of existence which lie both within and without the human body.

Bateson's work reminded us continuously that it was nonsense to see the 'individual organism' as a unit of survival. Rather, the minimum sensible unit of survival is the 'organism-plus-environment'. It is evident, for example, that the organism which pollutes and destroys its own environment also sets about destroying itself.

'If now we correct the Darwinian unit of survival to include the environment and the interaction between organism and environment, a very strange and surprising identity emerges: the unit of evolutionary survival turns out to be identical with the unit of mind. ….

Let us now consider what happens when you make the epistemological error of choosing the wrong unit: you end up with the species versus the other species around it or versus the environment in which it operates. Man against nature. You end up, in fact, with Kaneohe Bay polluted, Lake Erie a slimy green mess, and 'Let's build bigger atom bombs to kill off the next-door neighbours'. There is an ecology of bad ideas, just as there is an ecology of weeds, and it is characteristic of the system that basic error propagates itself. It branches out like a rooted parasite through the tissues of life, and everything gets into a rather peculiar mess. When you narrow down your epistemology and act on the premise 'What interests me is me, or my organisation, or my species', you chop off consideration of other loops of the loop structure. You decide that you want to get rid of the by-products of human life and that Lake Erie will be a good place to put them. You forget that the eco-mental system called Lake Erie is a part of your wider eco-mental system - and that if Lake Erie is driven insane, its insanity is incorporated in the larger system of your thought and experience.' (Bateson, 1972, p. 460-1)

A further important implication of this way of thinking is that we have to be careful about how we participate in these circuits, since any human 'evil', 'arrogance', 'hubris', 'presumptuousness', 'hostility', 'greed', 'manipulation', 'extortionist impulses' etc - which are all forms of 'pathology' for Bateson - will tend to find their 'pathologising' reflections in parts of nature that 'go insane'. According to Bateson our 'minds' (which of course encompass human actions and the tools we use in these actions) form a part of the larger 'Mind', and therefore our insanity is also enclosed in the larger 'Mind'. As we see in the quote above, this means that the immanent mind is inevitably driven mad by our various types of insanity. In other words, we are capable of creating an insane world in our larger system. Unfortunately we see examples of this everyday on our TV screens. Our fundamental error is to separate 'Mind' from the system in which it is immanent (e.g. our human relationships, our ecosystem). This act of separation leads us inevitably towards disaster.



So the question here is to what degree our conversational systems are based upon 'control', 'hostility', 'manipulation' etc., and therefore to what degree we are able to openly participate in the conversational systems within which we live. Unfortunately, we spend a lot of time being in conversations where there are strenuous efforts being made to pre-emptively control or 'steer' the conversation's directions, limits, boundaries etc with the deliberate intent to arrive at a preconceived destination. The same question applies to the process of 'psychotherapy'.

In the open, relational, healthy network (constructive participation) you cannot see the outlines until the conversation is over. In the unhealthy network everyone usually knows that they have no 'real say' in the matter, or they know exactly what it is that the others expect them to say, and they also know that someone else has already decided 'the way things are and the way things will be'. (See Kenny, 1999, 'Live Speech & Dead Speech Networks')

From this point of view, the choice for 'therapy' is that between 'being controlled' by the therapist (or learning to 'control oneself', or 'control your child') on the one hand, or on the other hand, creatively elaborating the ongoing changes in one's living system.

The illusion often created in 'therapy' is that one can engage in a type of self-manipulation - (or be manipulated / controlled by a 'therapist who knows how') - based in large part upon talk - 'Control through Talking'. This is usually a kind of talking about one's problems, talking to / with the therapist; being talked at by the therapist; learning to talk to oneself in what's called 'inner dialogue' and so on.

Essentially, therapists perpetuate and sell four basic varieties of misunderstandings regarding the powers of manipulative talk -

1. That it is possible to 'Talk Away' one's problems - as if you could order them to go away by simply telling them to go (inner dialogue).

2. That it is possible to 'Explain Away' problems by having some sage reveal to you 'how it works', or 'what is really going on'

3. That it is possible to 'Talk it Out' as if by speaking you could exorcise the inner demons, and cause them to leave the body.

4. That it is possible to 'Talk it Better', by which I mean to make it all 'better' by finding a 'better' formulation (new constructs) to describe your experience.

But none of these assumptions about the powers of manipulative talk are true. None of them work. If they did work the world would not be full of 'impatients' (Kenny, 1999) returning week after week, year after year, to their therapists to continue to speak and speak and speak about their (still unresolved) problems.

These commonly made assumptions of individual therapy are all products of common confusions in thinking about human beings. They are all implicitly or explicitly called upon in the practice of therapists of many different types and orientations. They are all uniformly mistaken, unhelpful and act only to create further confusion in the problematic living of their often long-suffering clients.

There simply is no 'powerful talking' that can undo, cure, or remove human pain and suffering.


Misunderstanding Human Relationships

The second clue we can glean from the Metalogue is about the type of errors we fall into when we try to see living beings using the metaphor of 'machines'. Here is the next passage.


Metalogue Issue 2 - 'Machine Predictability' versus 'Spontaneity'

Daughter: But I don't understand. You say it is important to be clear about things. And you get angry about people who blur the outlines. And yet we think its better to be unpredictable and not to be like a machine. And you say that we cannot see the outlines of our conversation till it's over. Then it doesn't matter whether we're clear or not. Because we cannot do anything about it then.

From this second extract we get hints of the second major shift which Bateson recommended and which we can call the shift of attention from seeing 'objects' to seeing relations. To make this shift successfully involves getting to grips with the many metaphors that we use to describe events (metaphors which are based upon 'mechanical' images), and shifting from these 'mechanising metaphors' to more life-like alternatives. Using mechanical metaphors blinds us to the flow of relations between the presumed 'mechanical objects'. In order to be able to 'see' relations we need to be able to use relational metaphors.


The Problem with Metaphors

We have to be extremely careful about our choice of metaphors because these create a space within which we have to live, and in this living we come to be shaped by the metaphors that we selected to use in the first place. Unfortunately we can find it very difficult even to come to perceive the type of metaphors that we are living within, or the type of metaphor that is living through our us. This makes it very difficult to get rid of them when they have become a hindrance or limitation rather than a helpful vehicle. We are born into the flow of interactions created in the space of the dominant social metaphors which largely remain tacit, invisible - so taken for granted are they. As we live within these tacitly cleaved spaces, our ideas, analysis, work, and personal experiences are all being continually moulded, shaped, and given a direction without our knowing it.


'Metaphor is right at the bottom of being alive'

Bateson's view was that 'logic' is no good for understanding living forms. To achieve an understanding of the living we need metaphor. Just as 'logic' is no good for understanding the domain of the living, Bateson also frequently criticises the particular range of metaphors in common use, especially the old, but still very prevalent, Newtonian metaphor of the world-as-machine. Our experience, in general, is usually first fed through the 'machine metaphor' before we expect that we can 'understand' what we have lived, experienced, or witnessed. The assumption is that our experience must be 'checked against' the 'primary mechanistic reality' - and this means giving a privileged place to the mechanistic metaphor.

Today this is the dominant metaphor of humans at work and at play. Recent years have been replete with examples of treating the human body as a machine, for example the famous sports stars who have been found guilty of feeding the body with drugs to make it 'go faster', 'jump higher', 'perform longer' etc.


The machine metaphor is a major flaw in our thinking

The idea that we should be efficient like machines when we work is oppressive, and leads necessarily to states of abuse. It is ironic that in oppressive work situations we are likened to robots (as robots were originally conceived) - that is, as executing predictable, repetitive, machine-like movements. Now that the main interest in robotics is to generate robots which are 'human-like' (in that they can 'make anticipations' of their own, 'invent solutions' to problems, and essentially 'improvise'), we have the situation where the robots are being designed as 'ideal humans' while humans are still considered best viewed as 'controllable machines'. In other words, our human capacities for anticipation, improvisation and spontaneous generation are ignored and left out.

Bateson gives his own example of him and his team working within the older 'thingish epistemology' and its metaphors, and describes how this delayed their progress and caused them problems in the 1950-60's.

'We were inevitably stupid-bound, like the protagonists in a Greek tragedy, to the forms and shapes of processes which others, especially our colleagues, thought they saw. And our successors will be bound by the shapes of our thought.

This monstrous lag in scientific and philosophic thought is due precisely to that circumstance which we were so slow to recognise. Namely, the circumstance that the process of our studying the formal shapes of ideas is itself a thought process, pedestrian and tied by the leg to a massive ball of habit. '' (Bateson, 1976b, p. xii)


Seeking interconnectivity - 'relationship should be the basis of all definition'

For Bateson, the systems theory approach was the best viable alternative to the machine metaphor. Within this model he was able to seek out the patterns behind the patterns explored by the many different scientific models and different science disciplines. He was seeking the 'pattern that connects' - seeking for the interconnectivity between all living things, seeking for relationships as a critical patterning amongst all organised living.

Thus his central message was to shift from staring at 'separate objects' and begin to perceive and understand what was happening in the relationships between and among objects - especially the importance of relationships among people.

According to Bateson relationship should be the basis of all definition.

The issue about how best to understand human relationships can be partly illustrated by considering Bateson's notions of 'love' from the systemic point of view. Usually, in the Western world, we consider 'love' largely from the point of view of the 'individual'. For example, we say 'I' am in love with some 'other'; 'I have a loving relationship'; 'I feel loved by my parents'; 'I experience personal realisation in my loving relationships'; and so on. Each feature of 'love' is defined in terms of how an individual's life, purposes, desires, well-being, projects, experiences etc. are all validated, encouraged or stimulated by 'love'. The Western focus is on the individual as the optimal unit of analysis.

To understand 'love' from a systemic point of view, we need to shift our attention from this definition of what the optimal 'unit of analysis' is. Here, instead, the focus is on relationships between persons as the unit of analysis. Whereas in the individualistic tradition the relationship is seen as a type of receptacle which holds one's personal current and future desires, in the systemic view the relationship has a crucial value in and of itself, far beyond that of being a temporary vehicle for carrying around my personal desires - which vehicle I can always 'trade-in' for a better one when I happen to find it. At which point I simply transfer my personal desires into the new vehicle, like so much baggage switched from the old car to the new one.

This static image (receptacle / vehicle) ignores the value of the relationship itself - as something greater than the individual's partaking in it, and of something which has a life of its own. The systemic view is one of respecting the self-organising autonomy of the larger relational system, which has its own 'reasons'. Just as 'Mind' is immanent in the larger system (in the pathways and circuits which lie outside of the individual body) - so also 'love' is immanent in the larger system, as patterns of self-organisation not determined by individuals nor by the medium in which these 'love' systems live. In this systemic view the persons are 'part of' the larger whole relationship within which they live - but not as a 'container' of their personal issues, but as a complex space which gives location and realisation to human interactional, inter-relational phenomena. Human loving means our capacity to become a part of something larger than our individual selves, and this something larger is a system which is in turn part of an even greater system, and on into ever greater layers of self-organising complexity.

This vision of systemic embeddedness of 'loving' is immediately lost once we reduce our focus of attention to the level of the 'individual'. It is easy to fall into this reductive level once we focus on 'purposes' and 'plans', which are easily localisable within the 'conscious intents' of individuals. This creates a field of attention around the separated figure of an individual at its centre, with our descriptions of the relevant phenomena being made in terms of their correspondence with his or her individualistic 'desires' (plans, intentions, predictions, anticipations), and the degree to which he or she is 'satisfied' (pleased, satiated, confirmed, affirmed, validated) by the various outcomes over time. If the 'relationship' between the person and others in his 'field of attention' is given any value, it is only in so far as it 'works' or 'functions' for that which he desires. These relationships have no possible value beyond this reductive scope. Indeed, there is nothing to be seen beyond this field of attention - certainly not the complex larger systems of organisation at the higher-order levels mentioned above.


Epistemology Backwards - Misunderstanding Relationships

According to Bateson, people commonly fail to understand any notion of relationship beyond the reductive level outlined above. They are blind to the complex systemic qualities of our human experiencing.

'Psychologists commonly speak as if the abstractions of relationship (''dependency,'' ''hostility,'' ''love,'' etc.) were real things which are to be described or ''expressed'' by messages. This is epistemology backwards: in truth, the messages constitute the relationship, and words like ''dependency'' are verbally coded descriptions of patterns immanent in the combination of exchanged messages.

As has already been mentioned, there are no ''things'' in the mind - not even ''dependency.'' ….

But to act or be one end of a pattern of interaction is to propose the other end. A context is set for a certain class of response.

This weaving of contexts and of messages which propose context - but which, like all messages whatsoever, have 'meaning' only by virtue of context - is the subject matter of the so-called double bind theory. ''

(Bateson, 1976b, pp. 240-241)



A lot of time in 'psychotherapy' is given to the erroneous pursuit of 'emotional programming' or 'adjustments' based on therapists' mistaken ideas about 'relationships'. Thus, for example, the 'therapist' tries to 'help' their client to 'diminish' his individual sense of dependency on his mother, or to 'transfer' this dependency onto 'more people' thus 'dispersing the dependency' into several different 'packets' or 'deposits' which he leaves with these several others (and not just with his mother anymore).

This is a classically erroneous misunderstanding of 'relationships' which mistakes an abstraction of a relationship ('dependency') as if it were a 'real thing' which exists INSIDE of the impatient who must learn to 'communicate' differently with his mother, sending her 'different messages' to express his changed 'dependency needs' to her.

Instead, from Bateson's point of view, the messages are not 'expressing' anything. The messages are the relationship. 'Dependency' is only a description of patterns in the flow of co-ordinated messages among the participants in the emotional system.

In making these errors in thinking about our human experience of relationships, psychologists and others merely add further enormous confusion to the lives of those people who turn to them for help. Instead of being helped, they find themselves trapped in absurd conversations based on the 'psychotherapist's' simplifying view of relationships, speaking about 'dependency', 'hate', 'fear', and so on, as if these were 'real things' lodged 'inside' their individual bodyhood, and as if there was something to be done to 'draw them out', 'exorcise them', or 'satisfy them' in some mysterious unilateral manner. Until 'psychotherapists' begin to understand the context of relationships, these confusions will continue. I guess it is good for business. Keep the clients confused, and they will keep coming back for more 'enlightenment'.

In this second case the illusion created in 'therapy' is that one can engage in mechanistic self-manipulation - (or be manipulated by a 'therapist who knows how) - based in this case largely upon thinking, often called 'positive thinking', 'cognitive reprogramming' etc.. This is a kind of Thinking-About one's problems, thinking out loud with the therapist; hearing the therapist's thoughts about the issues; voicing one's thoughts, learning to think to oneself - in essence the reprogramming of the cognitive machinery.

Following their misunderstandings of the nature of human relationships, therapists sell four basic varieties of misunderstandings of the powers of the techniques of manipulative thinking -

1. That it is possible to 'Think Away' one's problems - as if you could send them away by just 'thinking about' them in a prescribed way. (Telling ourselves lies about what is going on)

2. That it is possible to Reflect Away' problems by having some sage reveal to you 'how best to think about it'. 'Here's a useful thought' they say. (Meditate on the guru therapist's revelations)

3. That it is possible to 'Think it Out' - as if by a careful rational and logical process you could 'draw out of the 'inner self' these long-standing human experiences (as if they were a type of parasitic worm lodged in the body's interior). Or as if we could logically 'balance the books' - and come to feel differently to how we actually do feel.

4. That it is possible to 'Think it Better', by which I mean to invent a 'better' or new way to think about the experiences. (But changing our perspective on the world leaves the world indifferent)

The unilateral manipulation of ideas cannot affect the self-organising system of relationships within which we are trying to find a useful part to enact.

There is no unilateral, powerful, cognitive mental force.

None of these assumptions about the powers of manipulative thinking are true. None of these work, no more than do the erroneous assumptions about manipulative talk work. They are usually engaged in unilaterally and outside of the proper relationship context of the living of the impatient.

The choice for therapy here is that between 'being treated as a mechanism' or in a mechanical way by the therapist (who attempts to exert instructional interactions) on the one hand, or co-generating spontaneous novel improvisations on the other hand.

The main 'cognitive error' present in human beings therefore is not in the 'patients' but in the cognition of cognitive therapists - those therapists who believe that 'thinking differently' solves anything in the real world of the people's relationships.


Misunderstanding Human Patterning

Our third clue for another important shift to be made in our approach is found in the last line of the Metalogue which goes like this:-

Metalogue Issue 3 - 'Being Manipulative' versus 'Being Socially Genuine'

Father: Yes, I know - and I don't understand it myself ….But anyway, who wants to do anything about it.

The third issue concerns this attitude of 'wanting to do something about it'. The comment is about our sense of wanting to 'fix' or 'repair' or 'tamper' in some way with the way things seem to be at the moment - always from the point of view of one part of the system trying to 'fix', 'control' or 'organise' the rest of the system wholeness. For Bateson this notion is as nonsensical as the 'tail wagging the dog'. He warned us many times about the dangers of 'conscious purpose'. Conscious purpose is most readily seen in our collective western mode of fixing upon 'quantities' in any situation. Once we fix upon some quantity we are in a good position to start to manipulate it.


The Need to Shift to Perceiving Pattern rather than Quantities

At a conference organised by Bateson and Brad Keeney in 1979, Bateson's introductory remarks contained the following urgings to replace or rebalance the obsession with quantity with the capacity to perceive quality and pattern.

''In our social, individual and psychiatric adaptation - in our very ideas of 'adaptation' - there is a syndrome arising out of imperfect balance-or-harmony between quantity and pattern. ….

Commercialism combines with fashionable styles in scientific method to seduce us into an orgy and/or nightmare of quantity. A bland nightmare of homogenization. ….

If indeed there is an over-development of quantitative perception, there must also be an under-development of perception and understanding of quality and pattern. .…

A simplified parable may make the matter clearer. A square has 'more' sides than a triangle and a doughnut (torus) has 'more' holes than a solid. But these quantitative comparisons give no hint of the rich formal insights which topological mathematics will build upon the contrasts of pattern. …. ''

(Gregory Bateson, 1983).


The Manipulation of Quantity and Our Blindness to Patterning

The point is this: that manipulation occurs easily via our reduction of everything to quantities. 'I want MORE' screams the child. 'Do you never have ENOUGH' screams the mother. 'I have given you EVERYTHING' screams the disillusioned spouse.


The Error of defining Life, Satisfaction, and Meaning as 'quantity'

Bateson attempts to spell out the fact that our very definitions of 'personal satisfactions' and 'happiness' etc. are made in terms of quantities. Our dominant state of mind is that of detecting differences in quantities, and we are thus very poorly equipped to perceive the other side of the equation, namely, the perception of patterns, the appreciation of quality, and the need for society as a whole to radically alter this balance in an age where we urgently need to ask questions about changing the fundamental settings in our society. We use the quantity metaphor to think not only about our living world but also to make sense of our 'internal world' of personal satisfactions. However, an obsession with property, time and money is not useful for perceiving and understanding pattern.

Rather, we have an outlook that is predisposed to the manipulation of objects (quantities), and by extension to the manipulation of ourselves.

Happiness is judged in terms of 'how many' toys you get for Christmas. Our society makes us 'want' more and more. David Smail (1993) has written on the horrors of the consumer culture, feeding themselves sick. They are easily manipulated. They even manipulate themselves.

Bateson is making the point that this is a sickening way to live. It creates pathology in the culture and in one another.

Treating money or possessions as if they were a qualitative entity is an epistemological error because they are merely quantitative. It is equally erroneous to apply the quantitative metaphor to qualitative domains of patterning - as we do whenever we try to apply the notion of 'more is better' to the domain of relationships.


The Toxicity of Maximising Instead of Optimising

One way in which 'pathology' is generated by our obsession with quantities is in terms of the tendency to attempt to 'maximise' our quantitative possessions. The belief is that 'more is better'. Our whole society is based upon the accumulation of quantities of money. This obsessive injunction to multiply our tokens is also mistakenly transferred to many other features of our human living, such as our experience of relationships. For example, we tend to want to augment our 'supply of love', or 'maximising our relationship investments', etc. However, this transfer of 'more-ness' to the side of life which is organised patterning is a serious error. Bateson comments -

''Money, is you know, a pseudo-biological goal. True biological goals are always limited. Always what you want is an optimum quantity - of oxygen, calcium, protein, psychotherapy, love, whatever it is. We think about money as if it would be nice to maximise our supply of it, and hence also to maximise our supply of oxygen, calcium, protein, psychotherapy, and what have you.

Maximising these things always makes them toxic. In the real biological world, every desirable object becomes toxic beyond a certain point, except money. Money is in this sense a fake. It is an imposed value structure, an imposed metaphor which does not fit that which we are talking about. It's a quantitative metaphor which does not fit the world of pattern. It is an epistemological blunder. (Bateson, 1981, p.354)

At this point the third message from Bateson must be clear: the requirement for a shift from perceiving quantities to perceiving pattern.

''I am talking about the contrast between quantity and pattern. …. If you grow up, as we do, with a worship of the quantitative aspect and a minimal attention to the qualitative aspect, I believe you inevitably land yourself in the dilemmas of our civilization. This is a very important component in the pathway that has brought us here.

Consider the business of government. The government has control over quantities. They can alter tax rates and they can manipulate quantities in various ways, but the trouble for the government is that the weakest link is never predictable. You can impose quantitative change upon the system but you can never tell what the outcome will be. …. But that upon which the (quantitative) decision must act - the social organization, the education, or the foreign policy of the nation, is qualitative, and obeys qualitative laws which we very imperfectly understand. Decision becomes very difficult. ….

…every quantitative change we impose upon the system is in the end putting stress on the qualitative patterns whose breaking strains and whose evolutions and transformations we do not understand. ….

But I get back to the fact that the way we are going about things with this enormous emphasis upon the quantitative view and the minimal emphasis upon the patterned view is, I believe, the easiest way of descent into hell. The surest. ….''

(Bateson, 1981, p. 349)



One of the many implications for 'psychotherapy' is that it must be an approach to the systemic complexity of persons’ lives and not be seen as something for ‘curing’ people of ‘themselves’ - it is for pursuing their idiosyncratic implications for personal change into their own nearby future. Therapy - in order for it to be constructive - must avoid the human temptations to mechanise, literalise, and to mystify.

Instead, we have seen the constant danger of confusion caused by therapists committing the twin vices of (1) focusing on 'quantities' and (2) mistaking abstractions for literal entities existing inside the impatient (reification).

An example of this therapist confusion and error is found in Bateson's impatience with family therapists and their attempts to 'count' the number of double binds occurring in family conversations. He criticised the family therapy movement in America for just these errors. For example, in this father-daughter dialogue -

"Father: There’s still the other problem for Angels Fear, the problem of the misuse of ideas. The engineers get hold of them. Look at the whole god-awful business of family therapy, therapists making ‘paradoxical interventions’ in order to change people or families, or counting ‘double binds’. You can’t count double binds.

Daughter: No, I know, because double binds have to do with the total contextual structure, so that a given instance of double binding that you might notice in a therapy session is one tip of an iceberg whose basic structure is the whole life of the family. But you can’t stop people from trying to count double binds. This business of breaking up process into entities is pretty fundamental to human perception. Maybe correcting for it will turn out to be part of what religion is all about. But you became so grumpy about it, and rather nasty to people who admired you immensely. " [Bateson & Bateson, 1988]

From this viewpoint the choice for therapy is that between 'being treated or manipulated as a quantity' by the therapist on the one hand (especially by a therapist guilty of the reification error), or alternatively co-elaborating the co-evolution of genuine human social relationships.

In this third and last case the illusion created in 'therapy' is often that one can engage in some form of quantitative self-manipulation - (or be manipulated by a 'therapist who knows how to weigh things up'). The 'active' version of this approach is usually based upon altering selected 'quantities' of behaviour by the exercise of sheer 'will power', or 'individual intentionality' ('Powerful Determination'). The passive version of this approach usually assumes the existence of a 'Powerful Reinforcement' system of pleasure or pain (basically the assumption that you can 'Bribe' or 'Ignore' human distress so that it goes away).

Another of the central assumptions made is that humans possess an individual 'will power' which they can 'use' in order to make the problem disappear by a force of 'intent'. The fact is that people are never in an 'outside' position from which to unilaterally exercise 'control' or 'manipulative intents' over themselves or others. We have already seen Bateson on the impossibility of one part of the system being able to instruct the rest.

Essentially these therapists sell four basic varieties of misunderstandings of the powers of manipulative intentions or manipulative actions (behaviours) -

1. That it is possible to learn to 'Ignore Away' one's problems - as if you could send them away by just 'ignoring them' in the prescribed way.

2. That it is possible to 'Inspire Away' problems by having some sage reveal to you how to 'gather the courage' to confront one's difficulties (or alternatively, to Threaten you in ways that are none too subtle - as in 'aversive conditioning')

3. That it is possible to 'Bribe it Out of the way' as if by a carefully prepared series of 'bribes' (positive reinforcements) you could somehow 'smooth out' or 'erase' painful human experiences.

4. That it is possible to 'Plan it Better', by which I mean to plan or invent a series of long-term 'promises' for a 'better future way' of dealing with the experiences.

However, none of these assumptions about the powers of manipulative determination for acting are true. None of these work, no more than do the previous erroneous assumptions about manipulative talk, or manipulative thinking work.



Within the frame of the 'Live Conversation' (Kenny, 1999) each person is encouraged to be fully 'present' and attentive, and open to exchanges which are marked by genuine social relatedness. All the participants have a mutual influencing (con-forming, in-forming, de-forming and re-forming) relationship with one another as components of the same conversational network. In contrast, the people in Dead Speech networks are encouraged to be mutually manipulative and extortionist in their treatment of one another as 'trivial machines' to use von Foerster's term. This has the effect of obliterating all other human values from the encounters in such a network - including the values of mutual caring, mutual acceptance, and mutual regard. In effect, what is obliterated is the sense of 'mutuality' enjoyed by humans in networks which allow for genuine social relationships. Without 'mutuality' there is no way for human relationships to co-evolve along the lines of reciprocal genuineness, sincerity, trust and honesty.

We can end this chapter by citing Bateson's general warnings about using the metaphor of 'power', especially within the settings of 'psychotherapy'.

'In addition to not giving our joint work sufficient credit, Haley slides too lightly over very real epistemological differences between himself and me. As I saw it, he believed in the validity of the metaphor of 'power' in human relations. I believed then - and today believe even more strongly - that the myth of power always corrupts because it proposes always a false (though conventional) epistemology. I believe that all such metaphors derived from pleroma and applied to creatura are antiheuristic. They are a groping in a wrong direction, and the direction is not less wrong or less socially pathogenic because the associated mythology is in part self-validating among those who believe it and act upon it.' (Bateson, 1976b, p.106)

In the preceding pages I have outlined a range of therapist errors, all of which can be subsumed under the errors of the 'power metaphor' and the 'machine metaphor', in that each example assumes the ability to use a 'powerful manipulation'. Specifically, the four 'assumed powers' are those of: -

Powerful Talk ('explanation')
Powerful Determination (will or intentionality )
Powerful Mentality (reflectivity or thinking )
Powerful Reinforcement (bribery)

But none of these powers exist.

With human unhappiness you cannot: -

Explain it away
Talk it away
Will it away
Act it away
Think it away
Reflect it away
Bribe it away


Ignore it away

Misguided therapists are deliberately using 'techniques' to try to engineer 'inner states of self' of the individual. Psychologists continue to sell workshops on how to engineer yourself into 'actualised feelings', 'peak experiences' etc. by 'pressing the right buttons'. But there are no buttons to press! It is simply not possible to programme the individual's system to produce desired 'states' - out of the context of everyday real relationships. The attempts to programme the biological computer with psychopharmacological substances is equally a failed illusion.

As with computer simulation problems, these are at best techniques that 'simulate' (dis-simulation - telling lies to ourselves) but do not 'produce' or 'replicate' the spontaneous human experiences of 'love', 'happiness', 'joy', 'well-being' and so on that they are aiming at.

You cannot 'engineer' happiness - or even unhappiness.

And yet, most therapies continue with this pattern of beliefs and practices.


So, Finally, How 'Free' is Free-Will?

Gregory Bateson invites us to make several radical shifts in our understanding of ourselves as living beings in a viable ecology of mind. To underline the impact of these shifts I want to conclude by reproducing a relatively unknown letter which Bateson wrote in 1973 giving his advice to someone whose friend - a 21 year-old girl - had committed suicide eight months before. Bateson's letter is a response to the letter from this person who asked for help and clarification with his feelings of having failed to help the girl in question.


27 May 1973

Dear ------------------

I am sorry I did not manage to answer your letter while I was in Seattle.

I suggest that you consider and complete in your imagination the following scenario (after all, it is in your imagination that change is requested or needed):

Your friend has achieved her suicide and arrived at the Pearly Gates, where she is challenged by St. Peter, who notes that she has come too soon. She says that it was all --------------- 's fault.

There are many ways of completing the scenario, but one way or another, your friend has to demonstrate that she had no free will but you had. I suggest either that you both had free will or that neither of you had.

Of course it is gratifying to you and to all therapists to believe that they have more free will than their patients. But it won't do.

Your problem is to stop the boat rocking between the arrogance of 'I had the power and the knowledge to help' and the self repudiation of 'I failed'.

Your second question is much more difficult, but the answer is I suppose really a corollary following from what I have just said. You will always be terrified of the things which will inevitably happen in any therapeutic community if you start out with a false estimate of the power and the wisdom of whoever it is that runs the community (especially if it's you). What one human being can do for another is not quite nothing, but it probably sometimes helps the helpee when the helper is clear about how little help can be given. Some temporary protection from the cold winds of an insane civilisation, some shared tears and laughter, and that's about it.

Yours sincerely,

Gregory Bateson
Santa Cruz, California.





Gregory Bateson (1972). Steps to an Ecology of Mind. New York: Ballantine.

Gregory Bateson (1975). Counsel for a Suicide's Friend. CoEvolution Quarterly, Spring, 1975, Issue 5.

Gregory Bateson (1976a). In conversation with Brad Keeney, privately circulated as 'On Paradigmatic Change: Conversations with Gregory Bateson'. California, October 28 - 30.

Gregory Bateson (1976b). Foreword. In 'Double Bind' (eds.) Sluzki & Ransom, New York: Grune & Stratton.

Gregory Bateson (1976b). Double Bind, 1969. In 'Double Bind' (eds.) Sluzki & Ransom, New York: Grune & Stratton.

Gregory Bateson (1980). 'So What?' In Mind & Nature. New York : Bantam.

Gregory Bateson (1981). Paradigmatic Conservatism. In 'Rigor & Imagination' (eds.) Wilder-Mott & Weakland. New York:Praeger.

Gregory Bateson (1983). Quoted by Brad Keeney in 'Size and Shape in Mental Health: the story of a conference'. In The Journal of Strategic and Systemic Therapies, Vol. 2, No. 1, Spring, 1983. (Conference held at Topeka, Kansas, September 7-9, 1979).

Gregory Bateson and Mary Catherine Bateson (1988). Angels Fear. London : Rider.

Fritjof Capra (1988). Uncommon wisdom. London: Rider.

Vincent Kenny (1999). Towards an Ecology of Conversations - Live Speech & Dead Speech in 'Psychotherapy.' See an on-line version of this chapter at

David Smail (1993). The Origins of Unhappiness: A new understanding of personal distress. London : Harper Collins.

David Smail (1993). Chapter 4 - Case Study : The 1980s. See an on-line version of this chapter at


Home | Ecology of Mind | Mind-ing Ecology | Co-ordination Page | Search 
Bateson | Kelly | Maturana | von Glasersfeld | Laing | Antipsychiatry | Links
Ecology in Politics | Eco-logising Psychology | Sustainability | Environment & Nature