Negative Entropy – Bateson - Freud

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Gregory Bateson: “[T]he whole train of thought connected with the Second Law of Thermodynamics (Carnot, 1824; Clausius, 1850; Clerk Maxwell, 1831-1879; Willard Gibbs, 1876; Wiener, Cybernetics, 1948) is ignored by psychiatrists to the extent that while the word ‘energy’ is daily on their lips, the word ‘entropy’ is almost unknown to them.”[1]


The war’s end, and into the early 1950s – the period in which Gregory Bateson (with Jurgen Ruesch) wrote Communication: The Social Matrix of Psychiatry – presented a time of upheaval in Bateson’s life. During the war Bateson had worked enthusiastically as an agent of OSS (the precursor to the CIA), where he applied techniques and theories from anthropology to the war effort – including the theory of schismogenesis translated into the practice of disinformation.[2]

At war’s end Bateson expressed profound doubts about the use of anthropological methods and data in the furtherance of any state’s interests and would thereafter renounce the instrumentalisation of anthropological techniques. This was in line with the actions of Norbert Wiener, who refused to allow his wartime research material to be used once fascism had been defeated. It was at this time that Bateson's marriage to Margaret Mead ended – although formally divorced in 1950 they were separated from 1946. In 1947 Bateson entered psychotherapy. It was during this time of re-evaluation that the implications of the new science of cybernetics were recognised, principally through what came to be known as the Macy conferences on cybernetics (1946-1953), which Bateson was instrumental in organising. For Bateson the principles of cybernetics offered a new perspective of his previous work in particular and offered a scientific ground for the human sciences in general.[3]

Late in life, Bateson reflected on the introduction of cybernetics, and the degree to which past theories (his own and others) were re-contextualised:

“I was ready then for cybernetics when this epistemology was proposed by Norbert Wiener, Warren McCulloch, and others at the famous Macy Conferences. Because I already had the idea of positive feedback (which I was calling schismogenesis), the ideas of self-regulation and negative feedback fell for me immediately into place. I was off and running with paradoxes of purpose and final cause more than half resolved, and aware that their resolution would require a step beyond the premises within which I was trained.”[4]

The cybernetic explanation allowed Bateson to re-think biological and social systems as organized by the feedback of homestatic checks and balances.

Bateson moved to San Francisco in 1948 on the invitation of the Swiss Psychiatrist Jurgen Ruesch where he began research into human communication in psychotherapy at the University of California Medical School (Langley Porter Institute). There Bateson studied the nature of communication between a “tribe of psychiatrists”, taping ethnographic interviews and recording observations of psychiatrists around the Bay Area of San Fransisco. This material formed the basis of Bateson’s analysis of psychiatric epistemology that appears in Communication, The Social Matrix of Psychiatry (1951).[5]

In Communication, The Social Matrix of Psychiatry the authors share the chapters. They were the first to take on the task of relating the current state of psychiatry and psychoanalysis to recent developments in communications theory and cybernetics.[6] For Bateson, as with the other cyberneticians interested in psychology, the introduction of negative entropy into the energy model invited a fundamental re-evaluation of Freud’s psychodynamics.

Freud, when developing the system of psychotherapy, built on the psychodynamics of his former teacher Ernst Brücke (1819 – 1892). This held that every living organism is an energy system abides to the principle of the conservation of energy (the first law of thermodynamics). This model holds that the amount of energy within a system remains constant. The energy can be transferred and redirected but it cannot be created or destroyed. From this Freud derived the idea of psychodynamics, which allowed that, in the manner of kinetic energy, psychic energy can be reorganised within the system but cannot be destroyed. The mind has the ability to redirect and repress psychic energy, diverting it from conscious thought. Classically, the libido, which is the source of sexual energy, becomes redirected, to be manifest in different forms of behaviour. In Freud’s later works a similar dynamic operates as the ego, id, and superego struggle for equilibrium. Psychotherapy becomes a technique which rebalances the equilibrium of psychic energy within the system.[7]

For Bateson, in the light of cybernetics it became necessary to challenge the foundational assumptions of classic psychotherapy and psychoanalysis. Bateson identified the tendency to reify abstractions, to focus on an individual's personal history, to privilege the relationship between the client and therapist (as opposed to recognising the “social matrix”); to model reality and pathology in relation to a nineteenth century model of energy conservation which emphasises suppression and transference (dynamic psychology).

Freud’s entropic theory of psychodynamics, which was central to Beyond the Pleasure Principle, was devised before the notions of negative entropy and homeostasis invited a re-evaluation. As will become clear in the following chapters, although Jacques Lacan and Bateson agreed that consideration of the implications of negative entropy demanded an overhaul of previous ideas relating to psychiatry and psychoanalysis, they differed in both approach and emphasis. The key difference was that whilst Lacan sought to modernise and rehabilitate Freud, to meet the technical standards of the day, Bateson sought to bury him. Whilst Lacan used developments in cybernetics to mount a dialectical examination of changing discourse, Bateson recognized a change in the epistemological base which fundamentally challenged psychiatric practice as it had been conducted to date. Bateson understood Freud’s world view as wholly predicated on “the errors of epistemology” which more recent non-Freudian models and practices had begun to address.

Although Bateson gives due attention to Freud’s historical significance, in Communication, The Social Matrix of Psychiatry it is clear that developments in communication theory and practice have rendered Freud irrelevant. Bateson identifies four principle characteristics of Freudian psychic energy:

  1. “Psychic energy is a "substance" (in the strict sense) whose phenomenal aspect is motivation”: drive, purpose, wish, love, hate &c. It is derived from the deep instinctual systems of the personality.
  2. Psychic energy is indestructible, this is in line with the fourth law of thermodynamics.
  3. Psychic is protean in its transformations; a motivation not acted upon will find a phenomenal expression elsewhere – in sublimation and transference, for instance.
  4. Psychic energy is finite, psychic conflict drains the organism of this finite energy.[8]

All these assumptions are challenged by negative entropy and circular causality. Developments in science in the first half of the twentieth century– principally in the fields of general systems theory, communication theory and the complex of theories known as cybernetics – had transcended the nineteenth-century notions of the physical world which had framed Sigmund Freud’s thought. For Bateson, Freud was “an occidental thinker of the nineteenth century [who] followed the traditional line of Aristotelian-Thomian thinking”,[9] which in Batesonian terms amounts to an emphatic dismissal.

In chapter nine of Communication, The Social Matrix of Psychiatry, ‘Psychiatric Thinking: An Epistemological Approach’, Bateson makes his most sustained critique on Freud’s system with a reflection on Freud’s approach to the nineteenth-century energy crisis. Bateson opens with the assertion that there needs to be a reexamination of the epistemological premise which underlies the habits of communication within the psychiatric profession. Bateson draws on interviews and discussions he undertook with psychiatrists and psychoanalysts in the Bay Area, prior to writing Communication, The Social Matrix of Psychiatry, which allow him to examine the assumptions of different “theories of knowledge” practiced within the profession. Some, Bateson observes, think in the Aristotelian mode and others – in line with Norbert Wiener and the founder of general semantics Count Alfred Korzybski – work with a complex mixture of epistemologies taken from 2000 years of occidental thought.

Bateson acknowledges that when speaking it is near-impossible to communicate with epistemological constancy, even in writing it is difficult to not “lapse” into contradiction and vagueness. There is nevertheless a great deal to be learned from these lapses and elisions, and the opinions expressed by Bateson’s subjects present “straws in the wind” which express how the speakers grope for clarity between one scientific pronouncement and another. The two main categories of individuals interviewed by Bateson were Jungian and Freudian, who are placed in comparative critique against Bateson’s cybernetic epistemology. The argument progresses through different approaches to pathology, through to comparative notions of how a subject relates to notions of “reality”. Bateson argues against a form of solipsism which can result from “relativistic habits of thought” (which is a misalignment of scientific and social discourse), and which allows the subject to regard themselves as existing in their own unique “reality” or “private world”[10] This can result in either a delusional state or a feeling of total alienation and abstraction from the world. Bateson offers that both these positions are epistemologically flawed. Between the two extremes of solipsism and dissolution of identity “Reality” can be understood in a third way which involved deutero-learning.


The theory of deutero-learning was first published by Bateson in 1942. Bateson described it as a form of “leaning to learn”, a stage in a hierarchy of learning in which an individual understands context; or more precisely: “learning to deal with and expect a given kind of context for adaptive action”. For Bateson deutero-learning is the “very stuff of cultural evolution”, it is an understanding of the efficacy of reflexivity, that thought can model and predict future events. In this sense it offers a reflexive methodology in which interaction between individuals is central. Insofar as deutero-learning allows information to be carried forward and consolidated, it might also be understood as an expression of negative entropy.

In his discussion about the nature of reality Bateson actually provides a working model of deutero-learning. In this case, the subject recognises their idiosyncratic view of themselves and the world is part of “reality”. This gives agency to subjects as they recognise their ability to act adaptively and purposefully in the world. The subject can “correct” for their idiosyncrasies and recognise their own position as one degree of abstraction more removed from material reality than their immediate perception. Bateson labels this the “adjustive” theory of therapy, in which the subject accepts their own special habits of interpretation and performs a “further computational process” which serves to correct habitual errors.[11] In recognising the importance of different levels of abstraction, this approach draws on the past work of Stack Sullivan and Korzybski, as well as the current work of the cyberneticians. Bateson asserts that if in an open system making a choice brings order, the validity of deutero-propositions is really increased by our acceptance of them.[12]

In Communication, The Social Matrix of Psychiatry deutero-learning has particular relevance to how subjecthood is structured. Bateson contrasts deutero-learning with the Pavlovian model. An individual who has learned to avoid punishment will have a different character structure than an individual who has learned through reward; the first will be orientated toward avoidance of punishment, the second will seek reward. In contrast to the perspective of these two individuals, deutero-learning is concerned with context, with a person recognising how a context shapes events and how they are able to influence context. This is at a markedly different level of abstraction to a Pavlovian response, in which the subject is aware of the imminent reward or punishment, and will act in relation to the anticipated reward or punishment (in Bateson’s terms, proto-learning). The fatalistic Pavlovian subject will behave in a way which reinforces the reality they have experienced, in fact they will seek out instances in which their experience is verified, in this respect their reality is a function of their belief.[13] By contrast, at the level of deutero-learning the individual is able to affect context, and is also aware of the degree to which they can and cannot control it. The individual operating at the level of deutero-learning is akin to Maxwell’s demon as they order their environment to a far greater degree than an individual who cannot see beyond their actions and the given consequences of those actions. Bateson draws closer to the issue central to Freudian epistemology by drawing on the notions of the “reality principle” and the “pleasure principle” in stating that central to the development of the individual is the postponement and inhibition of discharge – the issue is the distribution, deferral, concentration, and quantification of energy – which bring to light the profound difference between world view that emphasises energy and a world view that recognises economies of entropy.[14]

For Bateson, Freud, in common with other thinkers in the nineteenth century, lacked a physical model which would allow them to arrive at a precise formulation of the nature of purpose. They were unable to recognise a connection between the self-corrective processes going on within organisms, these were being documented at the time by Claude Bernard and the self-corrective processes at work in the larger environment – including the evolutionary, ecological forms of adaptation and the social phenomena of adaptive behaviour. “Indeed,” claims Bateson “it was the unsolved problems of teleology that determined the great historic gulf between the natural sciences and the sciences of man.” For Bateson, Freud was unable to bridge the gap and borrowed terms from physics to resolve the deficit. “Today there exist many physical and biological models which exhibit self-corrective characteristics—notably the servomechanisms, the ecological systems, and the homeostatic systems—and we know a great deal about the working and the limitations of models of this kind.” [15] The foundational change which divides the nineteenth and twentieth century epistemology is an understanding of energy’s relation to order. Bateson stresses again his opposition to a “fatalistic nineteenth century materialism” – in which energy conservation, expenditure, and distribution resemble the actions of a billiard ball. This is contrasted with the subject who can, through choice, impose order upon the universe (Maxwell’s Demon). The subject is an active “participant in [their] own universe”.[16]

Bateson acknowledges that Freud’s view was never as reductive as the fatalistic materialism of man-as-billiard ball. Freud made the issue more complex by introducing three notions which, although scientifically untenable, allowed for a more complex vision of the human psyche. The Freudian triad was

  1. Psychic energy, a misnomer which allowed motivation to be justified and articulated.
  2. Energy transformation which Freud borrowed from physics and allows for the idea that “man can bargain in his energy exchanges”.[17]
  3. A series of entelechies (form-giving causes, such as id, ego and superego) which are introduced and give anthropomorphic agency within the overall theoretical system.

Given that it was necessary to humanise the theoretical picture these three speculative figures are understandable in Freud’s context, but in the cybernetic era it is clear that these entelechies cannot be accounted for.[18] Bateson rebuilds the Freudian subject in a circuit of communication, whereby, beginning with the “numerous interdependent and self-corrective circuits” it is possible to reconstruct the theory, “starting with entropy considerations”.[19]

At this point the respective positions of Lacan and Bateson come very close, (as will become clearer in subsequent chapters). Both recognise Freud’s intuition that something more than the entropic model was necessary for understanding the operations of the human psyche. Bateson and Lacan would also agree that Freud was far from recognising a relation between information and negentropy. However, by introducing the triad of psychic energy, energy transformation and the entelechies of id, ego, and superego, the function of entropy becomes implicit in Freud. It is no longer necessary to establish that “man can bargain in his energy exchanges” when agency is in the hands of the one who plays Maxwell’s demon and makes a decision which, in an open system, brings order. Bateson allows that “Freud's solution was good in the sense that it is today rather easy to translate these entelechies into more modern concepts”. Yet, for Bateson, in the cybernetic era, the entities of ego, id and superego are replaced by other “self-maximating and self-corrective networks”.[20]

One might ask, given that the foundations of Freud’s theory have been re-evaluated to a point where they are redundant: what is at stake, after one has removed the entelechies of the id, ego, and superego; if one rejects the centrality of entropic concepts such as repression, transference, and the death instinct; if one rejects that “intrapersonal processes” are the “centre of all events” (favouring instead a “social matrix”)?

Bateson, of course, never proposes a re-construction of Freud’s theories – this was a task taken up by Jacques Lacan, who in his Seminar II (1954-55) will re-cast Freud’s gallery of entelechies in the circuitry of cybernetic theory (see M. SPECULARIX AND SEER). Instead, Bateson dismantles Freudian theory and leaves the pieces to lie where they will. Bateson recognises that the scientistic position of the Freudians, through the use of terms such as “psychic energy”, and the entelechies of “id”, “ego”, and “superego”, are legitimate attempts to guard the emerging science of psychiatry and psychoanalysis against magical thinking and superstition, and a sentimentalised humanism. But, for Bateson, the magical thinking some schools of psychiatry employ (notably the Jungians) and the humanism of others (Sullivanian therapy) are closer to a teleological epistemology than the pseudo-science of Freudianism. In their use of detero forms of thinking (Jung), and in the recognition that all parties within a community are affected by the social system they are a part of (Sullivan) they display an openness to forms of psychiatric practice which recognise the significance of modern communication theory. It is precisely the closeness of Freudianism to the nineteenth century scientific world view – which misplaces the role of energy and economy in the psychic system – which leaves Freudianism deficient.

Bateson identifies two directions the theory and practice of psychiatry are taking in the 1950s: the humanistic and the circularistic.

Adopting a methodology which will soon become familiar, Bateson goes on to take flagging theories, which are themselves suffering entropy, and resuscitates them with the oxygen of cybernetics and information theory. In later chapters I will discuss how Bateson gave the epistemology of Korzybski’s General Semantics a new vitality when understood through the affordance given by negative feedback; and how the humanism of Sullivan is given a circularistic spin as interpersonal therapy is read in terms of communication theory. These examples illustrate how the cybernetic epistemology reordered and restructured existing knowledge, elaborating, re-contextualising, and up-dating theories which had been established decades earlier.

  1. Communication, The Social Matrix of Psychiatry 245
  2. For a thorough account of Bateson's WWII work see: David H. Price: Gregory Bateson and the OSS: World War II and Bateson's Assessment of Applied Anthropology. Human Organization. Vol. 57, No.4, 1998l| There is also extensive discussion about the degree to which anthropology was instrumentalised in David H. Prince Cold War Anthropology, the CIA, the Pentagon and the Growth of Dual Use Anthropology, Duke University Press, 2016
  3. (Lipset and others)
  4. Angels Fear 12-13
  5. Lipset, David. Gregory Bateson: The Legacy of a Scientist. Boston: Beacon Press (MA), 1982.
  6. This is in a similar fashion to Lacan's own theory of psychoanalysis, Levi-Strauss' structural anthropology and Jakobson's structural linguistics
  7. Hall, Calvin S.. A Primer in Freudian Psychology. Meridian (1954)
  8. Ruesch, Jurgen, and Bateson, Gregory. Communication: The Social Matrix of Psychiatry. Piscataway: Transaction Publishers, 2006.248-249
  9. Ruesch, Jurgen, and Bateson, Gregory. Communication: The Social Matrix of Psychiatry. Piscataway: Transaction Publishers, 2006.244)
  10. Ruesch, Jurgen, and Bateson, Gregory. Communication: The Social Matrix of Psychiatry. Piscataway: Transaction Publishers, 2006.
  11. Ruesch, Jurgen, and Bateson, Gregory. Communication: The Social Matrix of Psychiatry. Piscataway: Transaction Publishers, 2006. 239
  12. Ruesch, Jurgen, and Bateson, Gregory. Communication: The Social Matrix of Psychiatry. Piscataway: Transaction Publishers, 2006. 242
  13. Ruesch, Jurgen, and Bateson, Gregory. Communication: The Social Matrix of Psychiatry. Piscataway: Transaction Publishers, 2006.
  14. Bateson’s term “economies of entropy” is used in Sacred Unity p.?
  15. Ruesch, Jurgen, and Bateson, Gregory. Communication: The Social Matrix of Psychiatry. Piscataway: Transaction Publishers, 2006.
  16. Ruesch, Jurgen, and Bateson, Gregory. Communication: The Social Matrix of Psychiatry. Piscataway: Transaction Publishers, 2006.
  17. Ruesch, Jurgen, and Bateson, Gregory. Communication: The Social Matrix of Psychiatry. Piscataway: Transaction Publishers, 2006.
  18. Bateson drew on Kubie, one of the few proponents of psychoanalysis at the Macy conferences: Kubie, L. S.: Fallacious Use of Quantitative Concepts in Dynamic Psychology." Psychological Quart., 45 Ruesch, Jurgen, and Bateson, Gregory. Communication: The Social Matrix of Psychiatry. Piscataway: Transaction Publishers, 2006.
  19. Ruesch, Jurgen, and Bateson, Gregory. Communication: The Social Matrix of Psychiatry. Piscataway: Transaction Publishers, 2006.
  20. Ruesch, Jurgen, and Bateson, Gregory. Communication: The Social Matrix of Psychiatry. Piscataway: Transaction Publishers, 2006.