GREGORY BATESON: The Legacy of a Scientist by David Lipset

GREGORY BATESON: The Legacy of a Scientist

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David Lipset's admiring, prolix biography springs to life in a chapter describing Bateson's double bind theory of schizophrenia--possibly because the reader suddenly sees how much of Bateson's life has had a double bind flavor. As the youngest of three sons of the eminent geneticist William Bateson (who named Gregory after Mendel), the boy grew up comparatively isolated in a family of atheistic intellectuals. All three boys felt the pressure of dominating ""W.B.,"" who esteemed art as the work of genius, and science as a lesser but noble pursuit. Eldest son John was killed in World War I; and second-son Martin, eschew-Lug science for poetry and drama, committed suicide when the girl he loved rejected him. Gregory too rebelled against pure science, but also tried to please his parents--and this movement to and fro characterized his relations to peers as well as his intellectual growth. Many of the theories he generated--first as a field anthropologist, coming up with notions of interpersonal symmetries and polarities; and later, as a communications theorist latching on to cybernetics and feedback control--have self-reflecting, contradictory, or paradoxical (double binding) aspects to them. To resolve paradox, Bateson borrowed from Russell and Whitehead's theory of types and began to analyze language, learning, and communication in terms of logical hierarchies. Always the theorist, Bateson liked to let ideas flow about problems, preferably with a congenial mix of intellectuals; he abjured data collection and verification. These habits of mind made him an academic gadfly, an irritant to the orthodox, and a cult hero to the counterculture. Weakened now by lung cancer and emphysema, Bateson has retired to Esalen with mystically-oriented third-wife Lois. Lipset's portrait is always sensitive and particularly interesting in the earlier sections describing late Victorian intellectuals--Samuel Butler as well as the elder Batesons and their friends. In fairness, the problem of prohxity is partly due to the dense, obfuscating--but also coy--style of Bateson himself, who, despite occasional flashes of insight and intuition, does not emerge as a major figure in the mainstream of ideas.

Pub Date: May 2nd, 1980
Publisher: Prentice-Hall