Batesonian Flapdoodle

Okay, one of my "bad influences" is Gregory Bateson (1904-1980), anthropologist, biologist, psychologist, founding father of systems theory and ecology, and all-around "great white medicine man."

I hate to confess how much Bateson has impacted on my own thinking. Here are several journal entries (2/2/97, 3/23/97, 3/24/97, 8/2/98, 3/25/99, 3/26/99, 9/29/00) in which I try to come to grips with Bateson's patented mix of sagacity and flapdoodle.

In one lengthy ramble, I even apply Batesonian concepts to the question, "So what's up with this 'quest for the historical Jesus'?" My conclusions should get me banned for life from any New Testament studies program in the country...  :-)

Restful afternoon so far, lying there and reading Ruesch & Bateson's Communication: The Social Matrix of Psychiatry. I find it interesting chiefly for the light it throws on Bateson's systems theory-- another topic I'll have to write about in here some time, Bateson's thinking strikes me as a fascinating and annoying tangle of sagacity and obtuseness. At his best Bateson was an insightful, even germinal thinker; at his worst, a vulgar snake-oil pedlar of late modern amphisboenic autophagous relativism.

Still, Bateson is one of the great unacknowledged influences on my own thinking on semiotics and the like.

His notion of pragmatic paradox and the double bind is one of the half dozen real conceptual breakthroughs in modern semiotics. His systems approach often provides a helpful (additional) perspective on things. He has made me think hard, where I would not otherwise have been inclined to think, on the character of "self-validating beliefs," and belief structures which, like your visual field, fill the entire "field of view" with neither edge nor remainder. His concept of metacommunication, and levels of communication, is a salutary corrective to those of us who (like me) can easily slide over into an uncritical philosophical realism.

Yet Bateson's thought seems to conceal (and ill conceal, at that) a strong tropism toward philosophical idealism-- his approach might almost be true without remainder in a world of angels, or other realm where you never bark your shins against hard, recalcitrant brute fact. Not unrelated: as I've learned in pastoral counseling, the point where Bateson's systems theory breaks down, and badly, is the point where it is applied to situations of physical abuse. Not all human interaction can be reduced to Batesonian "communication": consider the case of a fist right in your face. As Peirce would put it, Secondness really cannot be aufgehoben into pure Thirdness, and in some phenomena Secondness is simply far, far more prevalent than Thirdness.

Too, Bateson in his runaway holism tends to claim that the Part and the Whole are very much alike, especially the Whole. This is not cogent to those of us who consider both Part and Whole as coequal aspects of-- how shall I put it?-- yes, the whole ball of wax, but not a soft, melted, run-together ball of wax; rather, an intricate, filigreed, very finely reticulated "ball of wax".

As somebody once put it, "God is in the details." This is an insight that does not seem to tax Bateson overmuch.

And this wholism, applied to each individual level of communication, is combined uncritically by Bateson with the notion that communication and metacommunication and meta-metacommunication, ad infinitum, constitute a discontinuous "ladder" of levels of abstraction. What results, for Bateson, is something like a nominalism, or pure social constructivism, on each rung of the ladder, and a sort of realism between one rung of the ladder and the next. But the realism collapses, like a house of cards, down into the overall nominalism-- a result which ought not to be surprising, when you consider how the sharp discontinuity between level and metalevel militates against the external referentiality of communication.

This same problem-- the assumption of sharp level-to-metalevel discontinuities-- also leads to the conclusion, in the likes of George Lindbeck, that language is not referential. It can be dealt with by disallowing the distinction between levels and metalevels, which in turn requires the assumption in its place of something like a pragmatist criterion of assaying communication, or else the assumption that the system is slightly "blurry," is not or need not be formalized, etc. Bateson draws here upon Russell, and as Peirce once observed, Russell's paradoxes really only become acute if you assume that formalization is the name of the game.

Or the problem with level-to-metalevel discontinuities can be dealt with (I think more convincingly, and perhaps more or less equivalently) simply by denying that the transition from level to metalevel is discontinuous. Every statement is a mix of communication and metacommunication and meta-metacommunication, in such thorough amalgam that communication slides all over up and down the ladder, like jazz notes glissando up and down the octave.

To sum up this knot in Peircean terms: Bateson assumes, on each individual level or rung, an extreme synechism, and level-to-metalevel an extreme "dissynechism": but why?

Pace Bateson, as communication displays natural articulations and ramifications (not just the arbitrary "punctuation" for which he allows), so theory and metatheory and rubber-meets-the-road practice all weave together into one seamless garment. That's why, though Plato was a philosopher, and between philosophy and poetry never the twain shall meet, nonetheless Plato's philosophy cannot be distilled and decocted from Socratic dialectic.

Note, my critique of Bateson has not yet begun. The aforegoing is simply a set of shorthand notes, a hasty sketch of a brief, a "message in a bottle" addressed, and intelligible, to nobody but myself.

(So what else is new, Burgess? Since D. died, there's nobody on the face of the earth who can follow you when you get off on this sort of stuff...)

And here what am I doing, on my "relaxing Sunday"? Why, shifting my mind into gear, like a hot rod taken out for a Sunday afternoon drag race.

...[T]he liberal-left worldview-- like so many other ideologies of the past 200 years-- seems expressly designed to be impervious to negative feedback, like a thermostat which never shuts off the furnace because it has no way of ever telling when "hot" is "hot enough"-- what, back in my Dubuque days, I used to call a "worldview without escape hatch."

I remember once remarking to L. at Duke that there is a logical structure which is to worldviews as unfalsifiability is to propositions-- just as logical positivists call some propositions "unfalsifiable," so we might call some worldviews or discourses "irreformable" or "unanswerable." And that it seemed to me an odd and perhaps not innocent oversight that, in an era when so much attention has been given to "unfalsifiable propositions," next to no attention has been focused on the far more significant notion of "irreformable worldviews," that is, worldviews which are not just insulated but systemically insulated from negative feedback. (Bateson's concept of pragmatic paradox addresses the issue squarely and quite fruitfully-- who else has there been?)

Last night, drifting off, I was mulling over in my own mind the observation that, of all the perspectives theology has assumed in the twentieth century, it really was neo-orthodoxy that should have been (throughout the mid-century, was) the twentieth century's most adequate answer to theological questions and the passing scene. Yes, a moderate liberalism and a moderate evangelicalism have made (each in its own way) moderate contributions to twentieth-century theology. But neo-orthodoxy really should have been, and remained, the twentieth century's theology and its legacy to future centuries, as scholasticism was the thirteenth century's, and protestantism the sixteenth's. True, Karl Barth was needlessly defensive over anything that smacked of humanism-- but this was a flaw of which most of the neo-orthodox second string, Brunner and the Niebuhr brothers and Tillich, were quite free. There is nothing in neo-orthodoxy that requires one to become what so many self-styled "Barthians" became.

But instead, we find ourselves edging up on the new millennium, with mainline protestantism on the ropes, a resurgent and often obscurantist evangelicalism-slash-fundamentalism, and a liberalism which looks likely to end not (like the liberalism of 30 years ago) in secularism, but rather in the vast amniotic chorion of the New Age. And neo-orthodoxy is scarcely a blip on the radar screen...

Theology-- not unusual food for thought as I'm drifting off to sleep at night. Odd, how a subject which has shaped so much of my adult life-- and continues to occupy so much of my thinking-- should find its way so seldom into this journal.

Then, some time in the wee hours of the morning, I was lying there in a muzzy wakefulness-- insomnia is no stranger to me-- and a thought came drifting into my mind, a thought which, in the light of 3 AM logic, seemed terribly vital and significant. In the light of day, it seems perhaps not quite so compelling, but it still makes sense. I wouldn't be surprised if it was sparked by those thoughts which passed for sheep-counting. It is woven of ideas both old and new. I don't know that it's going to set anybody's world on fire, but I think it is at least worth recording in this journal before, like so many thoughts of the night watch, it fades from recollection.

The thought (not word for word, but in its overall sense) was this. The systemic error of both New Testament critic and fundamentalist is their failure to see that in the gospel texts all levels of Batesonian logical ordering collapse down into a single level, and the various levels cannot even in principle be extricated one from another.

Whew! Not quite on a par with [a 1985 "midnight insight"] "Spirit is the pullback of the human being by the image-of-God mapping." But let's unpack this middle-of-the-night insight, and see what we can make of it.

It seems clear to me that historical criticism affords genuine insights into the gospel texts which simply are not accessible under any extant approach besides historical criticism. (See other journal entries-- esp. April 1994-- for a detailed explanation of what I mean by this.) But at the same time I think there is a fair amount of foolishness mixed up in historical criticism: alchemy which transmutes hidden metaphysical assumptions into historical conclusions; scepticism which looks to me strangely like Kantianism transposed into a historical-critical key, with the historical Jesus fading away into the unknowable noumenon.

And it seems clear that there is something about historical criticism which bespeaks, not simply innocent ignorance, but a sort of willing blindness and systemic self-induced astigmatism. Historical criticism bears many of the marks of an "irreformable worldview." (See yesterday's entry.) I find it telling, and hardly accidental, that for most individuals historical criticism simply does not bear fruitful integration into a living worldview. Yes, there are exceptions; perhaps I am one. But more often, you end up with a spiritual mule, hybrid and sterile, like S. And in the overwhelming majority of cases, it is like water off a duck's oiled back: passes over making no impression whatsoever.

As with individuals, so with cultural institutions. Historical criticism has had no discernible impact on music, the arts, popular spirituality, literature, educated secular thought, preaching, mission, worship, or even much of theology. Neo-orthodox theology in particular is notorious for tipping its hat to historical criticism, then passing on its merry way as if historical criticism had never existed. Indeed, outside of the cloister of the seminary or divinity school, the only trace historical criticism has left, like a smudgy oil slick, is the vague hand-waving impression, among intellectuals and supermarket-tabloid readers, that there is something radically slippery and unreliable about the gospel accounts. Like a heat mirage in the distance. Like the Warren Commission's report on the assassination of JFK.

When an intellectual current is so radically disengaged from give and take with other cultural currents, I take that as a pretty good sign that not just bollixes but systemic bollixes are present.

In the case of the historical critic, the bollix takes the shape of the assumption that the gospels consist only of Batesonian first-order statements (highly suspect statements, by the way) about things that happened or didn't happen long ago and far away, and Batesonian second-order statements which are tacit, which radically reshaped the first-order statements, and which are concealed in the text but can be retrieved by the historical critic.

In the case of the fundamentalist, the bollix takes the shape of the assumption that the gospels consist of inerrant first-order Batesonian statements. Period.

The fundamentalist bollix-- that is, neglecting second and higher orders altogether-- is so simple and so obvious that we can bracket it without further ado. The historical-critical bollix is less obvious, but far more conducive to systemic dysfunction. In other words, the fundamentalist is wrong, but at heart not screwed up. The historical critic is also wrong-- not quite as wrong as the fundamentalist, but this marginal advantage is more than offset by the fact that the historical critic is not just wrong but also thoroughly screwed up.

Lying there in the dark, it came to me that it should have been obvious, from Schweitzer onward, that all the manifold historical Jesii of the nineteenth-century "Quest for the Historical Jesus" point not just to a built-in limitation, but to some systemic bollix in nineteenth-century historical criticism as such. Simply put-- and no one seemed to realize it at the time-- what historical criticism seems to yield is less like the view of things yielded by Newtonian physics, and more like the infinitude of alternate possible view-structurings which in the nineteenth century came out in all those uncountably many non-Euclidean geometries.

Or simply put, a "quest for the historical Jesus" leads not to the (or even "a") historical Jesus. Rather, it leads to one of infinitely many "non-Euclidean geometries" by which theologian can read, and believer apply, the gospels. Historical criticism is not a way to read the events behind the gospel text, and not even a way to read the gospel text itself. Rather, it is a way to read readings. That is, it is a meta-reading, a meta-perspective.

Much of this was recognized (albeit in quite different terminology and conceptual dress) by those who undertook the "New Quest" at mid-century. But (I observe to myself) they seem seldom to have let it get in their way. And now the "Third Quest" of the past ten or fifteen years makes even more of this aspect of historical criticism-- though, as somebody put it of Crossan, he never lets it get in his way!

What is going on here?

Batesonian first-order is propositions, statements, communication about things. Batesonian second-order is theories, ideologies, symbol-structures, customs, practices, habits, myths, paradigms, regulative structures, learning about things, communication about communication, "metacommunication." Batesonian third-order is paradigm shifts, learning about learning ("deutero-learning"), learning or changing habits, metanoia, conversion, alternation, "aha!" insights, transformation, "communication about communication about communication" or "communication about meta-communication": "I see you seeing me seeing you..."

The human mind ordinarily achieves thematic awareness on third order only sporadically. Awareness on second order is routine, but it is a consciousness lacking self-consciousness, since in order to achieve awareness not just on but of second order, you have to be operating on third order.

Second-order is a geometry. Third order is a sheaf of geometries.

Fourth-order is change in the structure of change itself-- transformation of transformation-- Bateson gives the example of evolution, but clearly considers himself near the end of his tether.

Bateson argues, hand-wavingly, that the ladder of nth-orders could in principle ascend without end, getting harder and harder to "grasp" the further you go. Hmmm-- I leave it as an exercise for the reader to meditate (as I have) on the material correlation between things, first-order, second-order, third-order, and fourth-order, and the kabbalistic sephiroth of Malkuth, Yesod, Hod, Netzach, and Tiphareth...

(Yes, there are in the kabbalah only ten sephiroth. But there too the ladder is infinite-- as an old kabbalistic slogan has it, "Kether is the Malkuth of the unmanifest.")

Bateson seemed to think of these ascending semiotic levels of nth-order as discontinous and discrete, like the positive integers. As I have argued elsewhere, I don't think this will wash, as any non-artificial semiotic structure, on inspection, seems to be an inextricable weave of all orders, with many a fractional and fractal glissando "between the cracks." I think I am treading here the same ground as Peirce, with his ascending degrees of control, which however are ordered, with a fair share of Peircean semiotic vagueness, less like the integers and more like the continuum of the reals: control and self-control and control of self-control and..., with all sorts of synechistic "mezzanine" levels popping up in the laminar flow of semiosis.


The nineteenth-century historical critic believed himself to be trafficking in first-order statements. The historical critic of the "New Quest" or "Third Quest" realizes that second-order also plays a significant role in the procedure. My point (and it is not a new one with me) is that historical criticism is much more about third-order, and much less about second-order and first-order, than most academic religionists so far seem to have realized. Historical criticism is not-- at least not significantly-- a source of first-order insight about historical events, not even of insight into ideologies or "concerns of early church communities" or other such beasties which the hermeneutician of suspicion is always rooting out like a weed. No, historical criticism is primarily a generator of possible alternative "non-euclidean geometries" which can be used, in theory and in practice, to "gauge" our reading of the text. Very much as differential geometry provides the physicist with different geometries which may be used to "gauge" theories in physics.

In other words, the pragmatic cash value of historical criticism is primarily that it cranks out-- spawns, produces, shifts, alters-- paradigms and worldviews without end. (Not a new insight of mine, though I don't know whether I've ever before committed it to writing.)

And-- here is part of the burden of my middle-of-the-night insight-- even on this level the historical critic is in a systemic bollix, since the gospel texts provide their own paradigm-adjustment tools, their own structures for deutero-learning and metanoia: "These things were written that you might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, and that believing you might have life through his name."

Yes, the historical critic has more or less recognized this level in the gospels-- and instantly and firmly bracketed it, under the rubric of "well, we scholars can't deal with faith as faith." Oh? That's about like H.'s assertion (back in college) that a sociologist can't learn what adherents of a religious group believe by interviewing them as they come out the church door on Sunday morning and then statistically analyzing the results. Why not? Well (as H. said with a straight face) after all religious beliefs are subjective, therefore a sociologist will be unable to study the sociology of religious movements.

But then (another part of the burden of my insight) are you saying that we can't study third-order semiotic structures, simply because they are third-order? Of course we can-- but it will require going to third- and fourth-order ourselves. In other words, it will require opening oneself up, personally, to the existential risk of metanoia.

You can indeed study scientifically what drives the natives to convert-- but only at the risk of yourself "going native."

Suppose we were to deal with this, thematically, as part of biblical studies and theology? This is an idea I tossed out in a letter to D. a couple of years ago. At the time, I was waving my hands, and didn't precisely know what I was saying myself. Last night's insight provides me with the "aha!" insight to clarify myself on this point conceptually.

Also-- the other half of the burden of my insight-- not only is the gospel text already operating on third (and presumably fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh...) level, but in fact in the gospel texts all the levels collapse down into one, and you cannot even in principle disentangle them.

Further middle-of-the-night flash: Barth's key insight-- the key insight of neo-orthodoxy in general-- was to incorporate this realization, tacitly but integrally, into the very warp and woof of theologizing... Read his Church Dogmatics-- hell, read his commentary on Romans-- you'll see what I mean...

Barth lets the third-order in the text function in its own integrity within his theology, he doesn't try (like the liberal) to substitute his own paradigm adjustments as if the text had no third-order of its own to supply this need, or as if this level could somehow be "bracketed" or disentangled from the first-order reference and second-order meaning of the text...

This "non-disentanglability," as I have already argued above, is to some degree true of any human symbol-mongering. But (direct semiotic download) it is true of the gospel texts in a unique, and perhaps qualitatively different, degree.

I see it's getting late, I gotta get up and go to work tomorrow. But one last remark-- all this maps out, roughly, the way to ground rigorously my remark, in that letter to D., that given two communities of faith with two different views of the historical Jesus, then ceteris paribus the view which in the long run leads to more faithful discipleship is ipso facto the view which is closer to the historical truth.

How's that for applying the pragmatist criterion with a vengeance??!

The Bateson book [Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity] looks very, very interesting. It really deserves a cover-to-cover reading. Just flipping through, I note one point Bateson makes which reinforces one of the points I have made against Bateson. He argues that binocular vision demonstrates a general principle that combining information from two or more sources can lead to higher-order information which could never be gathered or generated from any of those sources singly. On this, I think he is correct. He then argues that binocular vision, with its depth dimension, is of a higher logical type than monocular vision. On this, he is probably correct.

Aha! Touché!

We ordinarily think of dimensions in terms of "n dimensions," where n is a non-negative integer. Just as Bateson routinely thinks of logical types as "stacked" in a hierarchy isomorphic with the positive integers. But go to topology, and study any one of the four or five definitions of a "dimension"-- they usually coincide, except in the case of some pathological or extremely simple spaces-- and you will discover that there the "n" in "n dimensions" need not be an integer. In most common applications, it is. But when we get into mathematically modelling extreme complexity-- in chaos theory, fractals, etc.-- we find that "n" often takes on a non-integer value. A shoreline may be of dimension 1.43. The granular structure of a composite mineral may be of dimension 3.57. Only when we abstract from the whole a relatively simple, "clean" set of factors is the dimensionality that obtains integral. Take phenomena as messy as they actually come, and you will find aspects of fractional dimension everywhere.

And semiosis is nothing if not messy and complex.

Hence, I argue, except in artificially simple examples, we will find all sorts of intermediate and "mezzanine" logical types. Which has been one of my main beefs with Bateson all along.

Apart from a few such bones to pick, however, I find myself agreeing with Bateson and Company more and more. And this is of a piece with my "latter turning."

Lay down this afternoon and spent a while reading further in Gregory Bateson's Mind and Nature, a book that has been on my "finish reading" list now for months. Bateson displays his usual mixture of profundity and quackery. I discover that he takes logical atomism for granted, which is disturbing, as it means he must willy-nilly take a great many other "modern" ideas for granted, too. And the ideas he then cannot take for granted! Synechism and any thorough-going realism, to name only two...

Also, he seems to take for granted a nearly Berkeleyan philosophical idealism. Tree, fall thou in the forest, and if we hear thee not, a non-tree thou art!

At the same time, Bateson seems to be onto "a good deal else" of which he is one of the few to see the importance for any intelligent epistemology, or philosophy of mind. So it is the usual Batesonian mix, sagacity and flapdoodle stirred together at high speed in a Mixmaster.

Read further yesterday in Bateson's Mind and Nature. What an engaging, annoying amalgam!

In one section, Bateson makes the sagacious observation that linear logic, à la Aristotle, may homeostatically preserve itself by systemically blinding us to its limitations and shortcomings. Yes, I don't doubt it, and this becomes a crucial part of the mix in the modern era, roughly from Descartes onward. The whole "package" of linear logic includes elements which, especially under Cartesianism, take on the character of a double bind. As long as you don't become a "master of suspicion," and apply this observation in a flat, abstract, across-the-board manner, I think it is an important "meta-insight" into the way typically modern minds work. I remember how a certain seamless, opaque, flawlessly self-sealing mindset among the intelligentsia never ceased to amaze and perplex me, back when this insight first dawned on me around age eighteen. It was as if, in them, linear logic became nothing more or less than self-reinforcing tunnel vision. It is insights such as these at which Bateson excels.

Yet in another section, Bateson makes, almost in passing, the blithe and rather bizarre assumption that we judge things "beautiful" on the basis of their resemblance to ourselves. Oh, really? Could this observation hold up for even thirty seconds under the most basic practical testing? Under the most cursory theoretical reflection? Is the tree I judge most beautiful the tree that somehow most closely resembles me? Yet this flapdoodle, too, is characteristic Bateson.

Was reading last night and again this morning in that Bateson book I just got in the mail [Angels Fear: Towards an Epistemology of the Sacred]. It is the usual Batesonian tangle of sagacity and flapdoodle. What is new is that evidently, toward the very end of his life, Bateson turned to pondering the spiritual implications of his ideas, with his usual originality and idiosyncratic cussedness. Am only halfway through the book, and have been skipping some, but already I think I can see, in outline, what he is up to.

I am rather intrigued that Bateson adopts, as a point of entry, the essential role, within religion, of ignorance and unknowing. This is certainly not the starting point an "ask all questions, ask any questions" type like myself would have selected. Of course if you know Bateson, you can predict this is neither an appeal for, nor an attack upon, pious obscurantism. Rather he seems to be exploring the systemic need for the structuring and segregation of information within the whole organism, community, eco-niche, etc. "Information is news of difference": hence information implies a dynamic patterning of knowing and unknowing.

He also discusses the importance of spontaneity, the need for unconscious procedures undergirding conscious procedures, not letting your left hand know what your right hand is doing, etc. Here I can see resonances with my own work on the importance of irreducible vagueness, semiotic "downstepping," and the like. Can also see resonances with Nietzsche's old question of how we can create values, in the wake of the death of God, if to be conscious that one is creating is fatal to the creative act.

But before I reach the end of the book, Bateson may take all this off on some tangent I hadn't foreseen.