Bateson’s problem with respect to social collective notions: Some examples
Bateson (1979, 229) states with respect to logical types: ‘The name is not the thing named but is of different logical type, higher than that of the thing named.’ If one accepts this statement, then for a consistent use of the theory of types one must remember that the thing named not only is not but also does not contain the name (since this would be contradictory to the acceptance of the name’s being of higher logical type than the thing named). It is at this point, however, that difficulties emerge. Let us consider some study objects in the social sciences in which the distinction of hierarchies is particularly tough, namely such objects referred to as ‘culture’, ‘society’, ‘cognition’ or ‘mind’.
The concept of ‘culture’ (or such notions like ‘social setting’ and ‘context’) has a long history within and outside anthropology. It was and is used both to denote collectively certain people’s behaviours, thoughts and the products thereof, as well as to explain these phenomena. Following Bateson, one could expect problems with the explanatory power of theories using ‘culture’ if one could not ‘keep the levels straight’ (i.e. could not avoid the inappropriate blurring of different logical types) in the application of the term. But first it must be investigated whether it is possible at all to straighten out the levels. Indeed this is rarely systematically done in anthropological research. To show that such investigations do have relevance, I now wish to discuss some examples derived from quite different currents in anthropology.
For instance, the cultural-relativistic doctrine that ‘a culture can best be understood in its own terms’ is often invoked without any indication that Bateson’s problem might crop up here. In the doctrine it is assumed that the best descriptions and explanations of a culture are provided by the terms, ideas and assertions of the concerned culture itself (Herskovits 1972, 38), and not by the terms, ideas and assertions derived from other cultures. The methodology of cultural relativism is considered a basis for an objective understanding of cultures (Herskovits 1972, 38, 40-41). An opposing view would have it, that it is exactly a view informed by a foreign idiom, which makes it possible to give an accurate account of a culture. For participants using only their indigenous cultural idiom, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to give an explicit analytical account of their own behaviour patterns and beliefs (Benedict 1946, 13-14; Van Baal 1974, 1-13). There is a dilemma here: In the latter view, the ‘levels are kept straight’, because the messages of the theory about the studied culture do not contain elements of that culture. On the other hand, a situation is created in which researchers using some cultural idiom would be able to study any culture on earth except the one consisting of that same idiom; something unwanted in the light of comparative studies. On the other hand the cultural-relativistic methodology violates the type-theoretical principle (as formulated above) that the name cannot be included in the thing named. By this violation it would introduce circularity in the methodology concerning both descriptive and explanatory aspects of cultural analysis; to explain a culture terms are used that originate from that same culture.
Bateson’s problem is not only relevant for cultural relativism, but also for more recent proposals for the study of culture. Renato Rosaldo, contributor to the famous Writing Culture volume (Clifford & Marcus 1986), writes for example that ‘indigenous usage [of language] is always correct in its own setting’ (Rosaldo 1986, 83). If the possibility that indigenous practitioners of indigenous language can make this judgement themselves is not ruled out (which Rosaldo indeed does not seem to do), people can justify any usage of language with the invocation of their ‘own setting’. Just as with cultural relativism, a violation of the above-mentioned type-theoretical principle occurs. This is methodologically problematic, for it leaves aside the question of what counts as ‘indigenous’ or ‘own’ setting in the first place, something which cannot be answered by invoking the ‘indigenous’ and the ‘own setting’ again, since this would constitute a complete blurring of question and answer. (The judgement about what counts as ‘indigenous’ would be at the same level - be of the same type - of what is invoked as indigenous.) It also has quite some moral implications, for it prohibits those denoted as ‘non-indigenous’ to judge, evaluate, debate or criticize statements made by the studied people denoted as ‘indigenous’ who speak from the certainty of their all-validating ‘own setting’.
Post-Writing Culture definitions of ‘culture’, sometimes intended as a rehabilitation of the concept after the distrust caused by the ‘post-modern’ movement in anthropology (cf. Brumann 1999), also mostly leave Bateson’s problem implicit. Pascal Boyer (1999, 206), a representative of the school of evolutionary psychology, gives: ‘ “ideational culture” [is] the set of mental representations entertained by members of a particular group that makes that group different from others’, a definition that does not prohibit the inclusion of mental representations about ‘ideational culture’ in the set of mental representations. Said otherwise, Boyer’s definition allows for the inclusion of the definiendum in the definiens, again an instance of not ‘keeping the levels straight’. Another proposal for definition, by Christoph Brumann (1999), takes on the form of a matrix. The proposal entails that rows ‘stand for individuals’ and columns ‘for identifiable ways of thinking, feeling, and acting’ – features (1999, S6), where it can be indicated whether or not a certain individual has, believes or practices a certain feature. ‘[T]he term [“a culture”] refers to an abstract aggregate, namely, the prolonged copresence of a set of certain individual items’ (1999, S6).
Brumann suggests that individuals can be ascribed membership with respect to a culture according to their sharing of features in the matrix with others (1999, S6-S7). But he also allows features themselves to represent statements about individuals belonging to social collectivities, because ‘any observable feature can be included in [...] a matrix, including emic[] categories […] and self-categorization’ (1999, S6n8). This means that while viewers of the matrix may ascribe membership of individuals concluding from information in the matrix, such judgements can also be included already in the matrix through a feature. Here the levels are not kept straight; in fact, the judgement of the viewers who draw conclusions from the structural aspects of the matrix may be inconsistent with the information represented by some single feature. It seems very strange, however, either to forbid that the matrix could be judged from the outside, or to block the possibility for features to refer within the matrix to self-categorisations also known in outside judgements. Clearly we have here an instance of Bateson’s problem (are cultural categorisations of a higher logical type than the features in the matrix or not?), but the issue is not seriously addressed in Brumann’s article.
Francisco Gil-White (2001), like Boyer representative for evolutionary psychology, gives a clear recent variant of the view that subscribes to a distinction between observer and observed. He argues that people associate in groups in accordance with modularly conceived brain functions: ‘[Such] “modules” [can be] described in a cognitive sense […] as a set of processing biases and assumptions activated by the domain-relevant inputs [e.g.] social groupings’ (2001, 517). Crucial to Gil-White’s approach is the distinction between ‘ordinary folk’, who are ‘naive essentialists’ (p. 516), and anthropological researchers, who are not (pp. 515-16). The theory of cognitive modularity is then supposed to explain why ‘ordinary folk’ are ‘essentialists’ who ascribe the cultural transmission of norms and behaviours to biological descent (pp. 518-19). However, it remains unclear how this theory should be related to the minds of the researchers, because even if they would be essentialists, they could no longer be considered naive by the nature of the research as being about essentialism. In this sense the theory creates its own exceptions.
I conclude that Bateson’s problem is a recurrent phenomenon in anthropology (even if implicit) for which solutions have been offered during the decades either by accepting the equality between observer and observed, with the danger of confusion, or by distinguishing between them, at the price of the observers’ (and perhaps others’) exclusion from the scope of the proposed descriptions or theories. The diversity of the approaches contrasts with the commonality of the problem they have to deal with.