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Archive for the ‘Gregory Bateson’ Category

Of all the concepts I discovered at university, few had greater impact on me than type theory – not Betrand Russell’s mathematical application of it so much as Gregory Bateson’s application of it to psychology. I picked it up as part of my study of General Systems Theory, a popular intellectual fad of the times, and was lucky enough to have several classes with Anthony Wilden, one of the leading theorists in the field. Probably, Wilden’s originality and passion would have been enough to imprint the idea on my mind, but the main reason that type theory became a part of my thinking was that it explained in a satisfyingly complex way matters that would otherwise be inexplicable.

For Bateson, logical types were useful as a description of how information was organized. In a simple example, an organ like the heart and liver is of a higher logical type than a cell, while the body is of a higher logical type than an organ – higher, not in the sense of being superior, but of being composed of elements at a lower level.

For understanding how a body functioned, levels are useful because each one shows different characteristics and behavior. For example, consciousness is characteristic of the body as a whole, while a variety of chemical reactions such as the exchange of oxygen, take place at a cellular level.

Right away, this distinction has the advantage of reformulating apparent paradoxes. For instance, using type theory, “I am a Cretan. All Cretans are liars” can be quickly dissected to make sense. These statements are meta-statement, a statement about statements,” and is therefore of a higher logical type. As such, their truth needs to be evaluated separately from statements made at the usual level of discourse, and no paradox exists.

Similarly, philosophical discussion about individuals vs. society turn out to be in need of reformulation. Being at different logical levels, individuals and societies cannot be said to be at odds with each other, any more than your heart can be said to be at odds with your body. But if you say instead, “how can individuals and society interact for the benefit of both,” you have gone some ways towards focusing the subject and of increasing your chance of saying something meaningful.

Bateson used this set of intellectual tools to develop double-bind theory, the study of the psychological problem poised by a hidden meta-statement. For example, “Be spontaneous” contains two statements: first, a command to act naturally, and, second, a meta-statement to obey the speaker. The recipient of these commands cannot obey one without disobeying the other. Instead, they can only oscillate between the two. Bateson called such a situation a double-bind, using it to suggest that schizophrenia was the result of trying to live with a situation – an idea that R. D. Laing was to take to such flamboyant and extreme lengths as to discredit it in many people’s minds.

Later theorists went on to suggest that double-binds explained a great deal of human behavior. They suggested that it was a key form of social control, on both a political and a family level – present someone with a double-bind, they suggested, and they are kept too confused to question or rebel. Only if someone recognizes the structure of the double-bind – or, better yet, removes themselves from the situation in which they have to deal with it – can they hope to accurately assess their situation.

However, even in less pathological situations, those who came after Bateson found type theory useful. The idea that unclear communication exists because people are unable to separate statement from meta-statements suggests that any interaction is far more complex than it first appears.

For instance, a couple that bickers should not be explained just by the ostensible subject of the current argument, which is often petty. Rather, the argument should be read as having a level in which the couple are disputing their relationship. However, because neither realizes what they are really arguing about, the petty subject can be discussed almost endlessly.

I am well aware that type theory and double-binds have been criticized. But, as soon as I first read about them, they struck me in much the same way as Orwell’s analysis of how language can be used to corrupt communication instead of encourage it: both were concerned with opposing pathology and trying to describe what was really happening, rather than what appeared to be happening.

My conviction about the usefulness of type theory in dealing with people has never faltered since. Countless times, it has allowed me to de-rail an argument by suggesting that I and the others involved were really talking about something else rather than whatever had started us snapping.

It doesn’t always work, because, sometimes people would rather argue than reduce their differences. But, even then, it leaves me with an understanding of what is happening, which I far prefer to be mystified about what is going on.

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I first heard about the concept of dormitive explanation in university. Ever since, it’s been one of my basic tools for errors in logic and thinking more clearly.

The concept has been articulated several times in the last few centuries, but, so far as I can tell, the person who named it was system theorist Gregory Bateson. The name comes from Moliére’s play The Imaginary Invalid (aka The Hypochondriac), in which a doctor claims that opium puts people to sleep “because there is a dormitive principle in it.”

In other words, opium puts people to sleeve because it puts people to sleep. When the statement is reworded, the circular cause and effect is obvious, but an essential part of a dormitive explanation is that the circularity is hidden by changing the word being used. Often, as in Moliére’s play, the change in word involves using a word with a Latin word rather than a Germanic one, or, at the very least, a more impressive, mufti-syllabic word. In any case, the effect is to leave the impression that something has been explained when it has only been renamed.
Or, to explain the concept another way, dormitive explanation is a fallacy, an indicator of an illogical argument that the classical Greek and Roman studies of rhetoric somehow missed.

Dormitive explanations rarely exist in the hard sciences, although at first they might appear to. Explanatory principles like “gravity” or “mass” might act like dormitive explanations for the semi-trained – for example, things fall because of gravity, which is the tendency for things to fall – but the fact that they can be used to calculate other behaviors indicates that they are more than circular causality hidden by a change in terminology.
However, on the fringes of science, dormitive explanation becomes more common.. For instance, consciousness is often described as the capacity for self-awareness. Often, words like “syndrome” or “complex” or “effect” are used, so that feelings of inadequacy become “impostor syndrome”with no attempt to classify symptoms systematically.

Similarly, in many New Age philosophies, explanations are give in terms of “energy,” which – since the term obviously does not refer to any sort of energy recognized by physics – amounts to just another name for a dormitive principle.

In some ways, dormitive explanation can become an appeal to authority, either to the authority of the explainer, or to the force or principle evoked as an explanation. For example, if you say that men have evolved to be better at mathematics than women, not only are you suggesting an evolutionary tendency whose existence is unproved, but you are mentioning evolution in the hopes of presenting an argument that others cannot challenge.

In fact, dormitive explanation is all about authority. It makes the person who gives it sound authoritative, and, if accepted, gives listeners a sense that something that concerns them has been explained. In practice, no explanation has been given at all, but unless the listeners can analyze while someone else speaks, they are unlikely to recognize what is happening until later.

Many, of course, never recognize it all, and have no desire to do so. After all, which would you rather do: suffer from joint pain, or have arthritis? The problem is not that arthritis doesn’t exist, but that it is a generic term that covers dozens of different conditions. That means that being told you have arthritis actually does people little good. Yet, having a scientific-sounding name for their condition is reassuring for many people, even if the name does little to suggest treatment or prognosis.

What makes the concept of dormitive explanation so important to me is the fact that it is generally unrecognized and used to assert authority and give false reassurance. By contrast, by being aware of the concept, you can learn to notice it when you encounter it, and reject the lack of logic behind it. The result can be not only clearer thinking, but a clearer sense of what to do next.

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