A Response to Outlines

Metalogue: Why Do Things Have Outlines? by Gregory Bateson

The essay consists of a dialogue between a daughter and father that is about the way people categorize things (hence, the conversation is called a metalogue). One way is “muddled”, or misinterpreted due to misinformation that is disseminated by society, and the other is “clear and sharp” or what science wants to achieve, with the end goal of educating society. The father represents the latter and the daughter the former. The essay simplifies the implications of this through the personality of the two characters.


  • Mad-angry
    • Disturbed with the way society is entering into an age of ‘confusion’ and ‘disorder’
    • Perhaps a rebel in early years but has conformed; frustrated because of this
  • Clarifies
    • Does not want to be misinterpreted
  • Closed minded
    • Cannot understand why daughter cares about the topic in the end of the essay
    • Confused and so dismisses topic at hand


  • Naïve
    • Does not know about Father’s past
  • Tolerant
    • Taught in schools
    • Calls William Blake ‘intolerant’ due to his aggression toward others
  • Perceptive
    • Determines from the start that conversations do not have outlines
  • Open minded
    • Listens to fathers side of argument even though she cannot fully understand him
  • Muddled
    • Switches animals in her description of croquet scene in Alice in Wonderland

The father confuses his daughter’s misinterpretations as muddle, but then realizes that in that muddle, there is actually something to be learned about her generation, and how it will progress from his own. The daughter understands her father and is influenced by his behavior (following a traditional parent-child relationship) and sees that she must be corrected on certain details of information that she misinterprets, but wishes her father could be less caught up in the past and be more ‘unpredictable’ (and more adaptable to the changes to come).

The machine (i.e. technology) automatizes the outline. This leads to the standardization of human behavior, which is already happening with the way technology has come to govern our lives. This is what the lawmakers believe is the solution to their problems of the past. An economic downturn can be prevented if instead of a person as the head of the US Federal Reserve, it were a machine operating under an carefully calculated algorithm. The unpredictability of the market comes from human behavior and the lawmakers, for this to work, would have to issue laws to make people less predictable, since algorithms can only accommodate for old information (cannot handle the unpredictable).  This is one of the few scenarios in which this kind of thinking may work. The issue comes when this sort of thinking is applied elsewhere.  If applied to art and architecture, which specifically caters to people (and not just the economy and money making schemes), then the results are sterilization of the human spirit and creativity.

Misunderstandings between generations are inevitable, and so it must be understood, through a certain level of tolerance from the both, that the unpredictability, the uncertainty, and the ambiguity of it all is actually an opportunity.


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