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Posts Tagged ‘General Systems Theory’

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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