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An Ecology of Mind

In the 20th century, the diverse work of Gregory Bateson was hugely influential in many fields. Now his thinking and writing could offer an essential guide to the future of architecture and urbanism

The anthropologist, cyberneticist and ecologist Gregory Bateson (1904-80) observed that matter (what things are made of) and pattern (how they are organised) have tended to be treated as distinct disciplinary areas of study within the dominant traditions of Western thought. For him, the pattern/matter dualism represented one version of a deep conceptual structure which can be found in other iterations, such as form/substance, mind/matter and culture/nature.

A similar dualism structures our concepts and experience of architecture: we perceive built space as bodily experience and conceive it, abstractly, in the form of symbolic and iconographic languages, and various kinds of cognitive mappings. Moreover, we find a similar distinction in the very division of labour that underlies modern building production: it is typically conceived as a mental practice, an immaterial labour that informs the matter of the world through the embodied material labour of builders. Following feminist theory ‘pattern’ (or ‘form’) is often viewed as the privileged side of the pairing, one that is deeply structured and indeed gendered within our language: pattern comes from the Latin pater, meaning father, while the word matter derives from the Latin mater, meaning mother.

It is often stated that a mechanistic, deterministic and reductive materialism took hold of Western thought at some point during the industrial revolution. There is much truth to that, although other very different and often non-dualistic cosmological models were also active throughout the enlightenment. Since the mid-19th century
the sciences themselves have suggested new conceptions of matter and life, often less concerned with the search for fundamental parts than with the relational systemic processes that are active in the world. Throughout the 20th century a series of attempts were made to explore new ways to describe the relation between matter, life, the self and mind in general − interests that continue to animate much interdisciplinary work today.

‘… the pattern/matter dualism represented one version of a deep conceptual structure which can be found in other iterations, such as form/substance, mind/matter and culture/nature’

Bateson was in some sense present at the end of one scientific worldview and at the emergence of another, and reflecting upon his work reveals opportunities and tasks not yet taken on. His thinking is also directly and indirectly relevant to current architectural concerns. He moved across disciplinary boundaries in his study of how organised systems − mental, social, biological and ecological − evolve, change and learn. He started his career in biology, but shifted into anthropology in the 1930s, working with Margaret Mead. They were key participants in the seminal Macy cybernetics conferences, which produced the staggeringly influential work that forms the foundation of much of today’s thinking around complexity, ecology, computation and cognition.

After Macy, Bateson went on an extraordinary intellectual journey, inspiring much of the anti-psychiatry movement (notably RD Laing and Felix Guattari), and later inspired Guattari’s work with Gilles Deleuze; he mentored Richard Bandler and John Grinder as they founded neuro-linguistic programming (NLP). He came to consider all complex material systems as immanently language-like, or even mind-like, insofar as they respond to differences in their environment. He called this approach ‘an ecology of mind’, an attempt to move beyond the dualism that had, he argued, resulted in worldviews that were either ‘excessively materialistic’ or ‘totally supernatural’.

‘… the human self can only be understood as an ecological phenomenon, both embodied and moreover extended into its environment’

Bateson’s project was in fact a radical re-imagining of what ecology might be. Instead of a science concerned with controlling complex systems, he led a radical tendency among some cybernetic theorists who argued that the very insights of systems thinking and the sciences of complexity showed that control was often neither possible nor desirable. In a short but incisive text Bateson outlined possibilities of an ecological urbanism, arguing that cities needed to be understood as complex systems that could not be fully understood through concepts such as efficiency or indeed quantitative systemic management. He argued for a planning approach that built in over-capacity and redundancy, as this would ensure the most open future social potential, and most adaptive relationship with non-human ecologies.

More generally, Bateson developed an idea around ecological aesthetics which brought together in a new way thinking about form and living matter. He argued for a new kind of science built upon relationships rather than just objects, and articulated through an explicit (rather than unacknowledged) aesthetic use of metaphorical systems in reasoning about our relation to the world. At the same time, Bateson argued for a completely different conception of what the human self is, stating that ‘the total self-corrective unit which … “thinks”, “acts” and “decides”, is a system whose boundaries do not at all coincide with the boundaries either of the body or of what is popularly called the “self” or “consciousness”.’ Ultimately for Bateson the human self can only be understood as an ecological phenomenon, both embodied and moreover extended into its environment, and his thinking resonates with more recent concepts such as Richard Dawkins’ notion of extended phenotypes (which argues that the structures that organisms build are extensions of their bodies).

‘… to be ‘complete’ or ‘whole’ is an illusory aim, whether as a profession or contemporary individual, as to be really whole we must include a radical incompleteness and openness to the future’

Bateson’s teaching and research methods ultimately focused on exploring aesthetics as a means of building a new scientific method. Bateson would present the students with crab, lobster and conch shells, asking them to imagine that none of them had seen one of these before, and to proceed to ‘produce arguments that will convince me that these objects are the remains of living things’. It is a fascinating challenge. There is of course no simple, correct answer, but the discussion involves recognising patterns and structures, and speculating what processes and relations they might have internalised and networked in space and in time.

Referring to this in his final book Mind and Nature (1979), Bateson ultimately asks: ‘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?’ Bateson became increasingly involved in the environmental movement, arguing that the emerging environmental crisis was in no small way the result of an imaginative failure to correctly see how human relations are embedded within a broader web of life. His approach often suggested a very different set of priorities to narrowly defined conceptions of sustainability, and perhaps primarily suggests a new kind of architectural knowledge based upon a study of spatial relations rather than commodity objects. He wrote that ‘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 can be criticised for failing to sufficiently acknowledge the more direct economic and social ecologies that also shape our minds and bodies, and this is one area I see where his work can be developed today. Equally, by ultimately privileging mind, he never fully escaped the dualism that he was so cautious of, although as Tim Ingold has recently suggested, we might today usefully think of Bateson’s conception of mind as a description of ‘the cutting edge of the life process itself’, charting life’s ‘creative advance into novelty’.

It is in fact in this respect that I think we would find Bateson speaking a word
of warning to the recent call in these pages for ‘a complete architecture’. For Bateson, to be ‘complete’ or ‘whole’ is an illusory aim, whether as a profession or contemporary individual, as to be really whole we must include a radical incompleteness and openness to the future, and must in fact, explore modernity. This today, would I think be a Batesonian answer to what we are and might be.

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