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Autor: Dany Gerbinet Speranța Popescu Camelia Stanciu
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Lecture held at Dimitrie Cantemir University of Targu Mures, Faculty of Psychology and Educational sciences as part of a master’s level course in the field of clinical psychology on the subject « Introduction to systemic – strategic therapy based on the Palo Alto model ». Systemic – strategic therapy was implemented in French – speaking Europe 20 years ago, and has as its basis the epistemological foundations built by Gregory Bateson, biologist and anthropologist, follower of the constructivist theory, on which the pioneers of the Palo Alto school in California relied on during their therapeutic interventions. The founders of systemic epistemology and at the same time the first practitioners of the intervention method were: Gregory Bateson, Paul Watzlawicz, John Weakland, Richard Fish, Don Jackson, Milton Erickson, Heinz von Foerster, Jay Haley, Virginia Satir.


Clinicians are not usually epistemologists and have little knowledge regarding this science which studies the origin of knowledge; however, this paper will involve an imaginary journey beginning with a personality, Gregory Bateson, who will takes us from epistemology to cybernetics, from cybernetics to a theory of schizophrenia, from psychotherapy to a certain psychotherapy technique representing an alternative to the traditional approaches in this field.

In this initiatic journey, we will adopt the anthropologist’s position, observing without judging, comparing, studying and meditating while collecting authentic data.

The first stage of our journey will be devoted to a scientist, Gregory Bateson, who, throughout his life, was preoccupied by the following formula: “the linking structure”. Of course, this formula becomes comprehensible if we present the family and cultural context which influenced his conceptions.



Gregory Bateson was the son of a reputed zoology professor at the St. John College of Cambridge University, who researched and taught at the end of the 19th century, in the period when Darwin was publishing his Origin of the Species, work which created more than heated debates regarding the opposition between the creationist (divine) conception and the evolutionist one in terms of how life evolved on earth. As a child in his parents’ home, Gregory Bateson was witness to gatherings of scientific and cultural personalities of the era, who debated these conceptions passionately.

Later, in his work “Mind and Nature”, Gregory Bateson insisted on the connections, relationships between individuals, objects, on the hierarchical  formal structure, on what he called “the linking structure: what is the connection between a lobster and a crab, between the orchid and the snowdrop, between the four and I and you, between us six and the schizophrenic patient?”

Gregory Bateson later studied biology at the same St John College in Cambridge. He spent his childhood and youth in the company of his father, studying animals and plants and having access to a vast culture, not only scientific but also artistic and literary. For the rest of his life, he remained faithful to his respect for science, the scientific act being subject to rigour and discrimination.

At the age of 20, Gregory Bateson took a trip to the Galapagos and was fascinated not as much by the animal species which he encountered as by the people in those places, their customs; he then made the determining choice in his career: he was going to become an anthropologist.



The next stage in our journey will take place in the scientific context of the period in which Gregory Bateson researched and worked.

Claude Bernard was the first who ascertained the existence of an analogy between the operation of the steam engine and that of living organisms, which possess certain organic parameters being maintained at constant levels in order to ensure the organism functions well: for example, cholesterol levels or blood sugar levels, or body temperature. This constant relative balance bears the name of homoeostasis. Homoeostasis is possible due to self regulating processes which cause those parameters to be maintained at constant levels.

In 1930, Norbert Wiener, considered to be the father of modern cybernetics, discovered the concept of feedback as a retroactive process with the role of maintaining system stability, if it strays from normal functioning parameters, that is to say if there is an important disparity between internal norms and some external phenomena which threaten the balance of the system. The concept of norm poses the problem of regulating the system around a stable value with the help of negative feedback, which represents the basis of self regulation in the system operation theory.

Straying from the norm, which represents a major risk for maintaining system integrity, is explained through positive feedback.

Cybernetic concepts gained ground in the field of psychology and explaining human behaviours and sparked Gregory Bates’ interest as an anthropologist.

With regard to the concept of norm in the field of human behaviour, one can speak of: personal norms, family norms and social norms.

Self regulation occurs in terms of biological norms but also related to psychological ones.

One must manage the disturbances which occur in one’s life environment; then, either our behaviour allows returning to the norm, or distance from the norm grows and a problem is created.

These conceptions spark interest in the field of psychology, psychotherapy, and in the field of communication, they create the premises of systemic therapy.

Descartes, in his famous Discourse on the Method, postulates that we will never be able to know the complexity of our universe if we do not know its constitutive elements.

Cybernetics and general system theory claim that studying each constitutive element of the system, one will not be able to know the manner in which the system works in its entirety.

The entire system tends towards respecting a balance norm, and in order to understand the behaviour of one of the system elements, it will have to be put in relation to the whole, as its functioning is controlled by the whole.



In this context Gregory Bateson grants special importance to  Bertrand Russell and Alfred Withehead’s studies, collected in their work, Principia matematica, published between 1910 and 1913, in which they explained the logical types. They claimed the thesis according to which when one must deal with individual elements which are part of a system, then the discourse regarding individual elements must be separated from that regarding the system of elements. If one does not respect this condition, the result of the reasoning will be paradoxical.

Gregory Bateson applies this thesis to logical language, which is hierarchical. For example: we cannot consider individual X to be comparable to man in general. Or Epimenides’ assertion, “all Cretans are liars”; or his invitation to spontaneity: “be spontaneous”.



This moment of analysing logical types makes the transition to developing communication theory and allows the discovery and explanation of the “double bind”. Within communication, there are always two elements: an emitter and a receiver, indispensable in order to construct a double bind. One can take the example of the mother who tells her child “come here” in words, but actually rejects the child with her gestures. In this situation we have:

  1. A first level message, “come here!”, which is a negative primary injunction.
  2. A second level message, a secondary negative injunction contradicting the first.
  3. An emotionally invested relationship.
  4. A failure in the communication situation.
  5. A difficulty or impossibility to get out of the relationship.

Gregory Bateson, in his work Steps to An Ecology of Mind, explains the double bind effect:”We suppose that, faced with a double bind situation, any individual sees his/her capacity to distinguish logical types sinking.” The features of such a situation are as follows:

  1. The subject is involved in a situation in which it is vital to him/her to understand the type of message being communicated, in order to be able to respond in an appropriate manner.
  2. The subject is caught in a situation in which the other emits two types of messages which are mutually contradictory.
  3. The subject is incapable of commenting the messages being transmitted before identifying the one to which he/she must really respond. He/she cannot utter a meta-communicative sentence.



Gregory Bateson, D.D. Jackson, John Weakland, Jay Haley began the first clinical research on schizophrenic patients and demonstrated that a patient caught in such a communication model (“double bind”) for a long time can develop psychotic symptoms.

Studies explain how double bind can occur in a family situation and put into practice the systemic conception regarding the etiology and psychotherapy of mental illness.

Subsequent studies based on the communication theory launched by Gregory Bateson took the form of the “Bateson Programme”, within which clinicians such as Haley, Weakland, Milton and Erickson, also using paradoxical intervention techniques, founded the Mental Research Institute in Palo Alto in 1959. Within this research programme. they developed specific psychotherapy techniques, also known as short therapies, based on the systemic – strategic theory.



The communication theory launched by Gregory Bateson connects the individual to the social group in a new interactional vision which completely alters the conception regarding psychological pathology and psychotherapeutic intervention.

Starting with this historical moment, one can speak of two main therapeutic directions:

The psychodynamic theory and practice, which gives precedence to the individual unconscious, personal history having a linear causality.

The systemic theory and practice, which gives precedence to the relational perspective, information being circular and synchronic.

The approach in short systemic-strategic therapies is non-normative and non-pathologizing compared to norms regarding the classification of mental illnesses. Within this therapeutic approach, the clinician doe not seek to understand the causes of the suffering but the manner in which it functions at the present moment.

Thereza Garcia and JJ. Wittezaele, in their work entitled In search of the Palo Alto School, expressed precisely the specificity of this therapeutic approach:”One of the most innovative and seductive aspects of short therapy is that connected to the respect for the other with regard to the other’s differences, letting the patient decide on the change objective with which he/she wants to work in the psychotherapy”.



  1. Bateson, G., (1990), Vers une écologie de l’esprit, Tome1, Seuil;
  2. Bateson,G., (1991), Vers une écologie de l’esprit, Tome2, Seuil;
  3. Watzlawick, P., Nardone,G. (2000), Stratégie de la thérapie brève, Seuil;
  4. Wittezaele, Jj., Garcia, T., (2006), A la recherche de l’école de Palo Alto, Couleur Psy, Seuil;
  5. Watzlawick, P., Helmick Beavin, J., Jackson, D.D. (1972), Une logique de la communication, Seuil.