Metalogue: ‘Less than One and More than Two: Developing a Partiality for Whole(some)ness’

Vincent Kenny & Laura Scarino

This is an early draft of an article later published in a special issue of the journal 'Kybernetes' (Vol. 36 No. 7/8, 2007, pp. 1100-1105)  to honor what would have been the 100th birthday of Gregory Bateson, and with the special task of looking at his unfinished science of mind and order, his eco-systemic thinking and cybernetic epistemology.




‘Less than One and More than Two:

Developing a Partiality for Whole(some)ness’



Vincent Kenny & Laura Scarino



This is a Batesonian-type conversation between the authors (VK & LS) which reflects upon and synthesises some of the passages in the therapy process they conducted some years ago. It is less ‘Meta-‘ and more ‘-logue’ than the Bateson Metalogues because, where he actually wrote both the ‘father’ and the ‘daughter’ lines, here we have collaborated to produce a four-handed text which is focused on some of the issues of doing psychotherapy with a ‘twin’ – but we hope it is clear that what follows may be relevant to any number of people in any network of conversations, be it couples, families, or organisations.



Vincent: Why didn’t you bring your sister again this time?

Laura: Because I wanted to talk to you alone…

V: OK. What’s on your mind?

L: Well, the question of personal change, how difficult it is, especially being a twin sister.

V: Being one of a twin set does have its advantages in doing psychotherapy.

L: How do you work that out?

V: To begin with, I see twins as a ‘double description’, as Bateson called it, and so you are one half of a double description, but at the same time you are not and cannot ever be a ‘single description’.

L: You mean that I can’t be a ‘proper individual’?!!

V: No, I mean that you have the advantage of knowing that the different ‘parts’ of discourse, the different positions in the networks of conversations, all combine to generate the emergent identity of the conversation that is going on between you.

L: Parts and wholes again?

V: Yes, in a way that creates an ever-present awareness of the fact that our ‘individual’ point of view cannot ever stand alone.

L: So you mean like Bateson’s notion of ‘mind’ as going beyond the individual skull and extending externally along the whole communicative circuit?

V: Yes, I like to call it the ‘exosomatic mind’. To put it alternatively, I can say that being ‘out of your head’ is the only proper way to be ‘in your right mind’.

L: Oh, well this sounds slightly better than not being a ‘proper individual’! So me and my sister combine to form an ‘exosomatic twinned mind’? To be ‘out of our heads together?’

V: Well, you know that people have their suspicions and fantasies about the secret powers of twins?

L: That twins are able to “read one another’s minds”, and have powers of Extra-Sensory Perception? But, its nonsense isn’t it?

V: The popular idea of ‘mindreading’ twins may have found a neurophysiological basis in the discovery of ‘mirror neurons’ about ten years ago. It is currently hypothesised that these ‘audio-visual mirror neurons’ are the basis of our human capacities for intersubjectivity, empathy and reading the intentions of others. So with humility we can say that ‘I know what you are doing!’ – even if I can’t see you doing it.

L: You mean that we will have a new model of ‘mind’ that does not have to stop at the customs barrier of the ‘internal/external’ interface?

V: Yes, the ‘exosomatic mind’ outlook and the mirror-neuron research programme are both models which dissolve the ‘self-others’ boundary. This has led some researchers to hypothesise that autistic children may be lacking functionality of their mirror neurons. In my terms it means they are left out of the Whole-Mind network, stranded on an isolated partial arc of the whole circuit where they don’t develop the skills of inter-subjectivity and don’t enter into the flux of communications.

L: And are you saying that as twins we have more opportunity to be familiar with the experiencing of the ‘exosomatic mind’, and that this familiarity helps me in the therapy change process? But I don’t really see how?

V: It helps because as twins you already have an ‘exosomatic awareness’ about communication and understanding, but more so it helps because the entity ‘twins’ is what must evolve, and this evolution is primarily to do with the emergent joint mindfulness that you generate together.

L: This means that I cannot change unilaterally, without the changes being reflected in my sister’s experiences, because what changes is the Whole-Mind System of which we are both constitutive parts?

V: Yes. To take a practical example, it is probably unlikely that you can unilaterally ‘lose weight’ as an ‘individual’ without affecting your sister’s weight. The entity ‘twin’ will probably have to conserve its overall weight – so if you lose some, your sister will have to gain some, to maintain the overall weight constant.

L: But I don’t understand: you first state that being one of a twin set is an advantage for making personal changes and now you declare that we have to remain constant! How could this be possible at the same time?

V: To my way of thinking, twins embody – literally – the core solutions to the living mystery of change and invariance, of difference and sameness...

L: This is where you talk about what is it that stays the same while change is going on?

V: Precisely. The notions of ‘autonomy’ and ‘interdependence’ can be most usefully seen as a cybernetic complementarity: the twins, in being a living solution to the paradoxes of change and stability, are a simultaneous double description of living alternativism.

L: You mean we can individually feel both our personal identity and our joint identity? OK, so can we come back to my first question about why it is so difficult to change?

V: To change what? A light bulb? A jet engine while the plane is still in flight?

L: Your last question is near the mark! I mean making personal changes.

V: To understand personal change we need to distinguish it from changing bulbs in two main ways: firstly, that we have to understand that the ‘change’ is not a permanent ‘fix’ for whatever the problem seems to be.

L: To change our idea of ‘change’?

V: Yes. We need to abandon the idea of change as a ‘solution’ to a problem.

L: To stop looking for the ‘quick fix’ that seems to put things ‘right’, and instead to shift into a new way of thinking about our human experiences? … and what was your second point about the differences to changing a light bulb?

V: The other main point about change is that ‘change happens’! Our human system ecology is in continuous transition and change. In our society a lot of effort is spent on trying to remove or ignore the disturbances that change brings in our lives. We spend very little time trying to understand what our symptoms of disturbance are trying to tell us. Instead we rush to ‘remove’ them as quickly as possible – as if the symptoms were like leeches in the jungle, that had attached themselves to our body when we weren’t looking.

L: I would really get crazy having leeches attached to my body!! I certainly will remove them as quickly as possible! Why should this be a mistake?

V: But our symptoms are not leeches. They have not attached themselves to us when we weren’t looking. Our mistake is in pretending that our symptoms are somehow not a part of ourselves. We have robbed our spontaneous symptoms of their significance for our understanding of ourselves and our experiences with others. 

L: OK. So when we don’t like how things have changed and we try to iron out the wrinkles that have appeared? Not only wrinkles in the skin, but wrinkles in our life’s plan, wrinkles in our relationships with others?

V: The ‘symptom’ is a message from the Whole-Mind System to a part (the single person) – which is an invitation to him or her to reconstrue their understandings of their own constitutive part in generating a given Whole with others. It is not just a “wrinkle” to be ironed out!

L: And also our constitutive roles with others is often quite different to what we imagine it to be. We tell ourselves a lot of ‘lies’ about this.

V: Yes, we tell ourselves a lot of ‘lies’… also by ignoring or eliminating the symptoms before we have a chance to reflect on their invitation to reconstrue. The symptom asks us – ‘can you get your partial mind around to thinking about Wholes?’ Or to put it more colloquially – ‘Can you get partial to wholesomeness?’

L: So you do believe that the ‘symptom’ is not only about one’s individual discomfort, but it is also an invitation towards more human wholeness. But how could a therapist make good use of the symptom’s questions ?

V: The original symptom which prompts the impatient to go to therapy quickly unfolds in the psychotherapeutic conversations into other areas of concern. It is an indication of a strong flow of meaningful intentions which the person wants to re-appropriate for themselves: like finding a strongly flowing tide which, if we can enter into it fully, will take us a long way from where we are now.

L: The symptom as a ‘marker buoy’ showing the deep tidal flow ...

V: Yes, but when the participants in the therapy, both impatient and therapist, are able to ‘see’ it as such, and can accept to enter into the flow of changing without any guarantee as to where it will all ‘end up’...

L: In other words, the person’s ‘symptoms’ are communications of ongoing personal-relational changes which we can either ignore or, embrace as a voyage of inquiry - the destination of which is unknowable.

V: Indeed, if the therapy goes well, we learn that the notion of ‘arriving at a destination’ is equally irrelevant as that of the ‘quick fix’ I spoke about earlier.

L: Once we change our idea of change, we have to continue to ‘change’ it!

V: You’re right! And in addition, in therapy one ‘symptom’ takes us only part of the journey, and is then substituted by another ‘symptom’. Each successive ‘symptom’ is like an RSVP invitation into otherwise inaccessible domains of our experiencing. All of these ‘symptoms’ are themselves an organisation of experiential domains and invitations.

L: The symptoms as a self-organising system?

V: Yes, in this case literally organising a ‘self’ in terms of its potential evolutions and changes. To come to know the particular language of this ‘self-organising symptom domain’ is an important part of the initial work in therapy.

L: But where will it stop?

V: Why should it stop?

L: Because some of these symptoms are very painful to bear…

V: Let’s change our definition, then… I prefer to think about ‘symptoms’ as our capacity to generate endless inviting questions which have a high relevance or interest for us.

L: You mean that the symptom is really a form of question that we need to pay attention to, that we need to ask ourselves?

V: Yes. When the ‘symptom’ is reconnected up in our lives to its originating question-generating contexts, rather than being ‘eliminated’, then we start to live in a very different manner. That which is important to us changes.

L: How did the symptom get to stand for the unasked questions? And how come the questions got to be ‘unasked’ in the first place? And how is it ...

V: Hold on there, too many good questions all getting run into one another!

L: OK, then – how do the questions get split-off from the questioner?

V: Good old George Kelly had the vision of human action as a form of questioning. Everything we do is best seen as a ‘question’ rather than an ‘answer’. Our actions are questions about what could be coming next, rather than being standard answers to something already past. It is about our be-coming human, rather than being ‘human beings’.

L: So his idea is that everything I do is a way of questioning myself or others about something?

V: Yes. Now the point is that we are doing this questioning-through-acting from the time we are born, maybe before, and, in this active experimentation of relating ourselves intimately to the world or others through what we ‘do’ with them, we come up against various barriers every so often which stop certain experiments in their tracks.

L: Barriers like… ?

V: … like one’s parents, other adults, big brothers and sisters who thump you on the head when you try to ‘experiment’ with their ice-cream. All the usual co-ordinations of activities and emotions that go on in the family.

L: Meaning that in my case of being a twin, we are already in this kind of active relationship of reciprocally cramping one another’s experimental style from the time we are in the womb!!!

V: Possibly yes! Anyway, as I was saying, our original questioning explorations of the world hits up against obstacles of various kinds. At times we find it necessary to abandon a given experiment.

L: So the child is constrained to abandon that line of exploration…

V: And this is where the ‘splitting’ takes place – the separation of the spontaneous organismic questioning activity from the ‘public bodyhood’ of the child.

L: And then in time, because the child is growing and changing, she or he loses the original contexts of her/his experimentations. Does the same thing go for losing the critical time for the crucial experiments? Running out of time before being able to elaborate the key questions with the key actors?

V: Yes and no! We lose the originating experimental laboratory context. But as a twin, you can continue to carry forward through time the ‘private laboratory’ that you created with your sister. Your private lab is still actively present. And this is another advantage for making personal changes!

L: So these lost questions then produce the ‘symptoms’ in later life which I called ‘wrinkles’ earlier on?

V: Your body and its wrinkles is your lived map of your life’s experiences and experiments. It tells directly the story of the forms of relationships that you have constituted and also those that you have not. The big questions that have not been experimented!

L: Dear oh dear!

V: From my point of view, this ‘body-map’ that we are living could be seen as the ‘unconscious’ – all those spontaneous activities that we can do without having to think about them, together with all of those ‘lost-question opportunities’. Except for the fact that this ‘incarnated narrative’ is easily ‘accessed’ and ‘read’ by others.

L: So the bodily wrinkles tell a long tale?

V: Yes, and I like to picture this wrinkling flow of communications like the wave movements across the surface of water. I like that image rather than the notion of wrinkles as something to be ‘ironed out’.

L: You know what happens when you try to ‘iron out’ wrinkles in your favourite piece of clothing? You find at the end that the wrinkles have simply moved, to another location in the clothes!

V: And this is what is happening also in human relationships unless we learn to “read” our wrinkles and to follow their path - to discover that they are just part of the pathway that is connecting us all.

L: And so not bringing my sister today..?

V: Well, talking about having one’s ‘incarnated narrative easily accessed by another’ – can you think of anyone else who would know better ‘what’s on your Mind?!’


**** ENDING ****


 1. Professor Vincent Kenny
Director: Accademia Costruttivista di Terapia Sistemica - Roma   

2. Dott.ssa Laura Scarino, Circolo Bateson, Rome , Italy




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