William Blake, 1825, Job Affrighted by a Vision of his God
Bateson was a scientist, he was precise and loathed ‘muddled’ thinking but he also advocated being human with patients (he actively treated patients between 1948 and 1963) and part of what he attempted to do was ’help them find valuable patterns in their lives’.
Whilst known more as a theorist than therapist, Bateson, in this transcript of a patient interview in 1958, revealed a disarmingly transparent way of being with others, here in a conversation with a family about why they often moved location:
Bateson. I agree with much of what you say.
Mother. Moving is just for the birds
B. Having been an old –
M. And even birds stay in the same nest (laughs).
B. – been an old mover myself. I spend time in New Guinea, in the Dutch East Indies, and God knows what else.
M. Well –
B. But –
M. It’s all right if you’re built that way. I mean each person has to do –
B. I don’t know.
M. The reasons have to be voluntary. Mine are involuntary, I know –
B. I was frankly running away from all sorts of things.
(Bateson, cited in Lipset 1980 p. 220-221)
Jay Haley, in a personal letter to Lipset, suggested that Bateson would ‘…stay up all night with alcoholics, to get them through…He felt that being human with people was good for them’ (Lipset, 1980 p. 215). R.D. Laing, who observed Bateson in 1962, considered that, like some of the best therapists, Bateson didn't regard himself as a ‘therapist’, suggesting that “....If I was the patient in the session, I certainly wouldn’t have felt there was anything to be frightened of...he never indicated that he thought in terms of actually actively adopting strategic, practical means to use to pry people out of the entanglement they were in...” (Lipset, 1980, p.220) According to William Fry, Bateson was like an anthropologist with families; more of an observer than clinician or therapist, and would “...Switch between that role and a sort of friendly mother’s brother...raising tantalising and significant issues...They were very intuitive and hit the nail on the head, and would do all sorts of terrible things...creating insights and stirring family patterns up”. (Lipset, 1980, p.219-20)
Bateson showed compassion and intuition in his interactions, and he often emphasised the importance of therapists and doctors ‘being human’ with their patients, but was simultaneously able to also take on a more ‘scientific observer’ position, too and seemed to shift between these different positions. Eventually, he became disillusioned with psychotherapy, in part because of Haley’s inability to fully understand epistemological issues, particularly with regard to power, and left to study dolphins.
Haley again: “Bateson didn’t like power. He didn’t even like the word...anyone who said ‘I’m going to change this person’. If they said ‘I will offer this person some ideas, and if they change, it’s up to them,’ then Gregory would have no trouble with them. But if you take responsibility for changing people, then you would have a problem...Any influence outside the person’s range is odious to him. Any indirect manipulation is [also] out of the question”. (in Lipsett, 1982, p.226)
‘Power’ is a problem because we believe in it. Bateson agreed with Haley that power is a central human concern; he just wished that us humans would stop believing in power because the pursuit of power entails epistemological errors of thinking that always cause trouble. At the very least, the extent of our power-seeking seems to be influenced by culture. Instead of thinking of power in human relationships, we would be better served by reflexive dialogue about the ‘metaphor of power’, and see ourselves as simply parts of a larger situation. (Harries-Jones, 1995)
Bateson talks of power and lineal control in the domain of scientific explanation, whereas, as therapists, when we talk of "power," are speaking in the humanist domains of experience and description. “It is profoundly different to speak of power and lineal causality in the domains of experience or description as opposed to speaking of these matters in the domain of scientific explanation”. (Dell 1989) We need to be able to move between these different positions of both punctuation and of abstraction – but how?
According to Charlton (2008), Bateson considered that psychology was evolving in two directions:
• Humanist – working with clients as one human being with another, intuitively responding from personal emotional resources to ‘act spontaneously out of his own integrity’.
• Circularistic – consciously scientific, articulate about methods and results, aiming for predictability and logical coherence.
Bateson saw a way forward as a compromise; a working together of both types of practice; between intuition and examination/description, each informing the other. Charlton adds to this:
“Humanist, scientist, artist and theoretician are all needed to form the cybernetic unity of healing” (Charlton 2008, p. 94)
In my opinion, therapy truly influenced by Bateson would involve moving between all four positions (Humanist, scientist, artist and theoretician) and having the wisdom to value them all.
Now I a fourfold vision see,
And a fourfold vision is given to me;
Tis fourfold in my supreme delight,
And threefold in soft Beulah's night,
And twofold Always. May God us keep
From Single vision & Newton's sleep.
William Blake, Letter to Thomas Butt, 22 November 1802.
A crude description of Blake’s fourfold vision might be:
• Single Vision – ‘Newton’s sleep’ - linear thinking. Knowledge. Rational. Material.
• Twofold Vision – Appreciating our connection with nature and the environment.
• Threefold Vision – Unconscious processes, memory and intuition.
• Fourfold Vision – The delight of experiencing single, twofold and threefold vision, with constant twofold visioning in daily life.
I would like to offer this version for therapists (and others who are engaged in 'people work')
Single Vision – The Scientist:
- Good observation skills.
- Linear descriptions:
- What is the issue?
- Who is involved?
- When does it happen?
- Where does it happen?
- Consideration of non-systemic explanations
- e.g. physical illness, disabilities
Twofold Vision – The Theorist:
- Consciously scientific observation of patterns within the family system.
- Circular causality.
- Relational aspects.
- Systemic theorising.
- First order cybernetics.
Threefold Vision - The Humanist:
- Being human.
- Connecting with personal experiences and intuitions, embodied aspects of practice.
- Self of the therapist.
- Disclosure and transparency.
- Second order cybernetics.
Fourfold Vision - The Artist:
- The aesthetic delight of working with and between single, twofold and threefold experience.
- Self of therapist and family located and theorised in wider and wider contexts.
- Higher levels of abstraction.
- Sparkling moments.
Bateson, G. (1972) Steps to an Ecology of Mind. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
Charlton, N. (2008) Understanding Gregory Bateson: Mind, beauty and the sacred Earth. New York: SUNY Press.
Dell, P. (1989) Violence and the Systemic View: The Problem of Power. Family Process, 28: 1, 1-14.
Harries-Jones, P. (1995) A Recursive Vision: Ecological Understanding and Gregory Bateson. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
Lipsett, D. (1980). Gregory Bateson, the Legacy of a Scientist. Boston: Beacon Press