Gregory Bateson was fond of quoting Heracleitus: "Into the same river no man can step twice," particularly in his later work, in which he was trying to define the nature of the interface between the realm of mind and physical reality, and to discuss the way in which mental process establishes landmarks or thresholds, meanings and definitions in the world of flux. But a book is like a river, not in the simple sense of water flowing by, but because the intellectual context, like the reader, changes steadily. Whether one is reading it for the first time or returning after a lapse of years, Steps to an Ecology of Mind is today not the same book as it was when first published some fifteen years ago, and for most readers its impact should be greater. We have changed and the broad intellectual climate has changed. It would not be fair to say that this is the more important publication, but it is certainly more accessible. The increased accessibility of Gregory's thought today has come about largely because of the steady influence of these essays and other writers drawing on them in the interval, and because, after recognizing the unity of this collection, Gregory himself was able to write at a more general level.
The work of Gregory Bateson has been widely read during this intervening period. Ever year now I hear of two or three conferences focused on some aspect of his thought, sometimes within a single discipline, sometimes across a wider range, and his name crops up more and more often. Even more significantly, many of the ideas that were most important to him have become familiar notions that we feel at home with. He was one of a group of thinkers working toward an understanding of communications, of the importance of self-regulating systems, and the causal role of ideas, messages, differences. This has made him a central figure in the growing appreciation of the importance of looking at events and messages in context and looking at systems holistically, whether we are concerned with the health of the human body/mind or the biosphere. The importance of epistemology is more and more widely understood. At the same time, much of this familiarity is illusory. Strange or unsettling ideas are dealt with as the oyster deals with the bit of grit, packaged in soothing ways, smoothed over. The risk for a reader of Gregory Bateson in 1972 was that he or she would too readily say, "This doesn't make sense. It's too obscure for me." The risk today is the premature claim of understanding, the premature application.
I have had two surprising experiences going back over these articles: The first was the discovery of how many of the ideas that seemed important in his later work were already here, although few will have grasped them completely on first encounter. The second is how much more still awaits discovery in these articles for one who has become accustomed to Gregory's thought. Working with Gregory and writing about him, wrestling together with new ideas. as they came along, I am probably as much at home here as any of his students and colleagues, and yet the rereading remains a discovery. Most of the pieces in this volume are tight, intense, abstract arguments, that Gregory and others labored to "unpack" over the intervening years; and still there are surprises hidden within them that become visible as the reader comes to move freely in the text.
Frequently , during his career, as his Introduction indicates, Gregory felt as if he were speaking and writing in a foreign language. People did not simply agree or disagree with him; they were bewildered or intoxicated. Mark Engels, in his 1971 Preface, recognized the analogy between the "mind expanding" experiences of drugs and religious conversion and the kinds of intellectual change that could be achieved by a pervasive reshaping of patterns of thought. In retrospect it strikes me that intoxication and conversion were common responses even to these abstract and difficult pieces — responses in which a fraction of the argument was carried on a tide of intuitive affirmation. Today, however, it is becoming increasingly possible to come to grips with Gregory's thinking, to select, affirm, contest, question. Throughout his life, he treasured the relationships in which he found opportunities for intellectual grappling that went beyond admiration adulation; critical reading is essential.
This new edition, then, invites readers into an encounter with the work of Gregory Bateson that was only available to a few when the collection first appeared. My advice to readers would be to hang on to the challenge as well as the affirmation. We have not as a civilization achieved those epistemological shifts that may some day enable nuclear disarmament, ecological responsibility, and new approaches to both education and healing that will value and enhance the complexity of persons in their familial and social setting. In these and in Gregory's later books (Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity, Dutton 1979, and, jointly with me, Angels Fear: Toward an Epistemology of the Sacred, Macmillan, 1987) the intellectual tools are offered. Today they will come more readily to hand, be easier to balance and handle in a disciplined manner than they were in the early 1970s, be more accessible to practice and skill. But still there remains the challenge of using the tools in such a way that they be-come a part of the user. And still the tasks for which these tools have been shaped largely remain to be done, more urgent today than ever.
— Mary Catherine Bateson Cambridge, Mass. August 1987
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