Nora Bateson with her father
I. Ding an Sich
Perhaps the largest question in epistemology is: How can we know anything if we cannot know the Ding an sich, the thing-in-itself? Or, another way of putting it: If we cannot know the Ding an sich, do we know the natural world at all?
Gregory tended to say that we know images of the world, not the world itself. An epistemology of mediate realism says that we do not know our images of the world, but we know the world itself through our images of it. Gregory cannot come to an epistemology of mediate realism because he has no developed theory of refer- ence, no theory of intentionality or ‘aboutness.’
Let’s parse this problem more finely than Gregory did. The notion of the Ding an sich goes back to the scholastic philosophers of the 13th century who used the phrase in se vs. quoad nos, a pair of philosophical jargon terms that are understood in relation to each other. Any being or entity that is understood quoad nos is under- stood as it relates to us. We might say that the sun is a disk, quoad nos, as far as we are concerned, i.e., from our point of view. But the sun is a sphere in se, in itself, i.e., not relative to any particular observer.
But there is a subtlety here that must be examined.
When we use the phrase ‘in itself’, in se, an sich, we seem to mean the object or event without its relationships to other things. But the question is, is any object or event real without its relationships to other things?
Of course there is a difference between the relationship to a perceiver, i.e., the causal relationships that trigger perceptions, and the relationships that a thing has altogether, the sum of its relationships to everything (as Kant and Bateson point out). But, is it not the case that we organisms perceive objects and events by means of the relationships that the objects and events have to other things?
The white egret is seen at dusk by virtue of the characteristic way light relates to the molecular patterns of its feathers. The crow is harder to see at dusk and may be missed entirely – because of the characteristic way its feathers absorb rather than reflect streams of photons. We perceive the mass of a paperweight by holding it in our hand. This perception is possible due to the attraction, the relationship, between the paperweight and the mass of the earth. Our perception of the mass of the object is due to the intrinsic gravitational relationship between it and the earth.
It is due to their relationships with other things that objects are able to be per-ceived by organisms with senses. But the fact that material objects have relation- ships to each other: reflectivity, resistance, momentum, gravitational mass, chemical reactivity, vibratory speed, resonance, etc, is not extrinsic to them. It is intrinsic. To think any other way is to imagine an essence, as in the Aristotelian/scholastic tradi- tion, an essence which is different from and mentally separable from the perceiva- ble ‘accidents,’ color, texture, shape, reflectivity, etc. This philosophy of essentialism has been left behind, undermined by scientific evidence during the 20th century.
Therefore, any thing in itself is a thing with its relationships. The idea of a thing without its relationships to other things is clearly just an idea. Such a thing cannot exist in the real world. It is an abstraction of the mind. So, we must conclude that the thing in itself, the Ding and sich, has relationships. And it is precisely through (by means of) these relationships that the perception and thus cognition of the object occurs. Therefore, we can know/perceive the thing-in-itself, but of course, indirectly, through the medium of the senses and central nervous system.
The philosophical texts that have for centuries claimed that the thing in itself cannot be known are the result of a trick of words, a subtle assumption that the real things out there are somehow stripped of their relationality. As we have seen, a little reflection shows that this is absurd. The relationality of things in the world is intrin- sic to what they are in themselves. Therefore, any Ding an sich that cannot be known only exists in our minds. The Ding an sich that cannot be known is precisely not a real thing in the world, but a mental construct, a figment of the conceiving mind. All Dinge an sich in the concrete world can in principle be known. Yes, known as Dinge an sich, as things in themselves.
However, they cannot be known directly, i.e., immediately, because nothing can be known without the mediation of the nervous system. But still they can be known in themselves, that is in their intrinsic relationships, through relationships that are inseparable from their intrinsic qualities, characteristics.
There were a few linked issues that are both relevant to his work and linked to each other that Gregory did not address, amidst the very large number that he did. Along with aboutness and reference which he did not work on, there was action. At an informal seminar not long before his death I asked him to speak to a philosophy of action. He responded, ‘Well, you know I have never been much for action.’ I suggested, then, that he might speak to a philosophy of non-action. He looked at me, and remained silent.
These issues of intentionality and action go together. As I have pointed out, his blind spot about action led him to miss the role of the direct access the hands have to the territory. In describing the man with the axe, he focused on the circuit of dif- ferences, i.e., the creatural aspect, not the ability of the pleromic axehead to directly change the territory.
We know the territory is there beyond our maps because it resists us. It resists our efforts to do things and our efforts to know things. But it does not resist absolutely.
The interaction of hand work and mind work has given us virtually all the under- standings of nature that the sciences have offered. Each year, each decade we know more – not just a little more, but much more. Although it is true that the interaction of the pleromic hand and creatural mind brings our images into a closer fit with the territory only asymptotically, the clear evidence of continually improved and improving knowledge due to their interaction is the ultimate warrant for realism.
Chapter 3 What Connects the Map to the Territory?
Tyrone Cashman – A Legacy for Living Systems Gregory Bateson as Precursor to Biosemiotics Springer, Jesper Hoffmeyer Editor) – fulltext pdf
Cashman, one of the moving forces behind wind energy in California, in the full essay provides one of the most singularly coherent advances of Bateson’s incomplete epistemology.