Metalogue 5: Why do things have outlines?


This metalogue talks about why we give things an outline when we draw them. It then moves on to the question of whether you can give an outline to something intangible like a conversation, or a business.

What father and daughter discover is that having an outline is very important, both for businesses and for people. And it is also something that changes and is unpredictable.

This metalogue shows us how to thrive in times of change.

Bateson’s metalogues are a series of imagined conversations between a father and daughter.

In this metalogue a daughter asks her father,

Daughter: “Daddy, why do things have outlines?”

Father: “Do they? I don’t know. What sort of things do you mean?”

D: “I mean when I draw things, why do they have outlines?”

F: “Well, what about other sorts of things — a flock of sheep, or a conversation? Do they have outlines?”

D: “Don’t be silly.”

But of course Bateson isn’t being silly. He is being very serious. And he then proceeds to show us how even a conversation has an outline. And so does a business.

He starts by talking about “a very angry artist… who scribbled all sorts of things down, and after he was dead they looked in his books and in one place they found he’d written ‘Wise men see outlines and therefore they draw them’ but in another place he’d written ‘Mad men see outlines and therefore they draw them.’”

This angry artist was called William Blake and “a lot of people thought he was mad — really mad — crazy. And that was one of the things he was mad-angry about. And then he was mad-angry, too, about some artists who painted pictures as though things didn’t have outlines. He called them ‘the slobbering school.’”

D: “He wasn’t very tolerant, was he, Daddy?”

F: “Tolerant? Oh, God. Yes, I know — that’s what they drum into you at school. No, Blake was not very tolerant. He didn’t even think tolerance was a good thing. It was just more slobbering. He thought it blurred all the outlines and muddled everything — that it made all cats gray. So that nobody would be able to see anything clearly and sharply.”

D: “Yes, Daddy.”

F: “No, that’s not the answer. I mean, ‘Yes, Daddy’ is not the answer. All that says is that you don’t know what your opinion is — and you don’t give a damn what I say or what Blake says and that the school has so befuddled you with talk about tolerance that you cannot tell the difference between anything and anything else.”

D: (weeps)

The father apologises. He says that he was angry “at the general mushiness of how people… preach muddle and call it tolerance.”

They wonder together whether it is worth getting angry about whether or not things are muddled, whether they are clearly distinguishable, whether they have outlines.

F: “I think it matters. Perhaps in a way, is the thing that matters. And other things only matter because they are part of this.”

D: “What do you mean, Daddy?”

F: “I mean, well, let’s talk about tolerance. When Gentiles want to bully Jews because they killed Christ, I get intolerant. I think the Gentiles are being muddle-headed and are blurring all the outlines. Because the Jews didn’t kill Christ, the Italians did it.”

D: “Did they, Daddy?”

F: “Yes, only the ones who did are called Romans today, and we have another word for their descendants. We call them Italians. You see there are two muddles and I was making the second muddle on purpose so we could catch it. First there’s the muddle of getting history wrong and saying the Jews did it, and then there’s the muddle of saying that the descendants should be responsible for what their ancestors didn’t do. It’s all slovenly.”

Bateson thinks that muddling things is something to get angry about, the thing to get angry about. And as he has shown us elsewhere, un-muddling things is what all science is about. And this is also connected to the idea that “we only have one big thought which has lots of branches”.

The point is that even conversations have an outline (a set of deep rules), if only we could see it clearly.

They decide to talk about a specific example, “a real concrete out-and-out muddle”: the game of croquet in Alice in Wonderland.

Father: “The point is that the man who wrote Alice was thinking about the same things that we are. And he amused himself with little Alice by imagining a game of croquet that would be all muddle, just absolute muddle. So he said they should use flamingos as mallets because the flamingos would bend their necks so the player wouldn’t know even whether his mallet would hit the ball or how it would hit the ball.”

Daughter: “Anyhow the ball might walk away of its own accord because it was a hedgehog.”

F: “That’s right. So that it’s all so muddled that nobody can tell at all what’s going to happen.”

D: “And the hoops walked around, too, because they were soldiers.”

F: “That’s right — everything could move and nobody could tell how it would move.”

D: “Did everything have to be alive so as to make a complete muddle?”

F: “No — he could have made it a muddle by… no, I suppose you’re right. That’s interesting. Yes, it had to be that way. Wait a minute. It’s curious but you’re right. Because if he’d muddled things any other way, the players could have learned how to deal with the muddling details.”

And for the second time Bateson has given us an example of how something alive (his daughter) can respond in ways he didn’t predict. Which in one way muddles the outline of the conversation (because it was unexpected). And in another way makes it clearer (by providing an example of a living creature behaving unexpectedly).

If the balls had simply had odd shapes, or the croquet lawn had been bumpy, then the players could have learned to deal with that. “But once you bring live things into it, it becomes impossible.”

Daughter: “That seems natural to me.”

Father: “Natural? Sure — natural enough. But I would not have expected it to work that way.”

D: “Why not? That’s what I would have expected.”

F: “Yes. But this is the thing that I would not have expected. That animals, which are themselves able to see things ahead and act on what they think is going to happen — a cat can catch a mouse by jumping to land where the mouse will probably be when she has completed her jump — but it’s just the fact that animals are capable of seeing ahead and learning that makes them the only really unpredictable things in the world. To think that we try to make laws as though people were quite regular and predictable.”

D: “Or do they make the laws just because people are not predictable, and the people who make the laws wish the other people were predictable?”

F: “Yes, I suppose so.”

Father and daughter ask themselves what they were talking about. Which is a way of asking what is the outline of the conversation.

They don’t quite know. But it’s “something about living things and the difference between them and the things that are not alive — machines, stones and so on. Horses don’t fit in a world of automobiles. And that’s a part of the same point, They’re unpredictable, like flamingos in the game of croquet.”

What about people? They’re alive. Do they fit? On the streets?

F: “No, I suppose they don’t really fit — or only by working pretty hard to protect themselves and make themselves fit. Yes, they have to make themselves predictable, because otherwise the machines get angry and kill them.”

D: “Don’t be silly. If the machines can get angry, then they would not be predictable. They’d be like you, Daddy. You can’t predict when you’re angry, can you?”

They decide their conversation has had an outline, but they “cannot see it yet because the conversation isn’t finished. You cannot ever see it while you’re in the middle of it. Because if you could see it, you would be predictable — like the machine. And I would be predictable — and the two of us together would be predictable.”

Daughter: “But I don’t understand. You say it is important to be clear about things. And you get angry about people who blur the outlines. And yet we think it’s better to be unpredictable and not to be like a machine. And you say that we cannot see the outlines of our conversation till it’s over. Then it doesn’t matter whether we’re clear or not. Because we cannot do anything about it then.

Father: “Yes, I know — and I don’t understand it myself. …But anyway, who wants to do anything about it?”

Implications for Business:

How does this apply to business? It’s not immediately clear, and in fact it all seems to be a bit of a muddle. But as Bateson has showed us, things have to get into a muddle before we can find new understanding.

We can notice some things straight away:

  1. We tend to prefer leaders and businesses who have strong ‘outlines’. Love them or hate them, we can respect leaders who are clear on what they stand for and what they stand against. Leaders with weak or inconsistent outlines we might call wishy-washy or buffoons. Businesses with strong outlines we call “brands”. Customers are willing to pay more to buy from these businesses, and employees are keener to work for them.
  2. The meaning of a leader’s or a business’s outline can change over time, and it isn’t clear until it’s over. In 1997 Steve Jobs was a failed entrepreneur who had been fired by the very company he founded. Apple itself was a small, failing technology firm. By 2011-12, Apple was the most valuable corporation on the planet and Steve Jobs was the man who built it.
  3. We live in a changing world. Leaders whose presence defines an era often fade into irrelevance when that era is past. (Think of politicians.) For decades, Kodak was the strongest brand in film photography. When digital photography arrived the company expanded into printers and copiers. Its outline became fuzzy. The company failed.

But what is Bateson really telling us here? For a conversation about the importance of clear outlines and meaning he is being surprisingly (frustratingly) vague.

Let’s recap the main points:

  1. William Blake thought outlines were important, and he was a great artist (or perhaps mad).
  2. Tolerance, when it becomes mushiness, is not good.
  3. Clarity, having clear outlines, is “the thing that matters.”
  4. The opposite of clarity is a muddle … and that happens when things are alive, because things that are alive can predict, which makes them unpredictable (like this conversation), which is natural and to be expected, and therefore predictable (sort of).
  5. So having a clear outline, which is the opposite of a muddle, means being dead.
  6. It’s not over till it’s over. While it is still alive, the meaning of the conversation can change (as indeed this one has).

For me, Bateson is telling us two very important things here and urging us to work out for ourselves a third thing which is even more important.

The two things he tells us are that clear outlines are better than mushiness, and that being alive is better than being dead. Then he shows us that these two things are incompatible: we cannot have the absolutely clear outline we want until either the conversation or the life is over.

This means the third and even more important thing is that we each have to choose a balance between the two: we each have to choose the extent to which we will constrain ourselves into a defined outline or remain free, unpredictable, and alive.

And as we make our meaning of the world, and start to behave predictably/unpredictably, so we change the meaning that other people make of their world and the ways that they will respond.


What does this all mean for business?

A business is a collection of conversations or relationships. It is a conversation with customers about what they want and how much they are willing to pay. It is a conversation (or negotiation) with employees, suppliers, lenders, and investors about what they can bring to the business and what the business will provide in return.

The business succeeds when it is able to negotiate a shared ‘outline’ with all these different stakeholders: a set of shared meanings that overlap. The stronger that agreed outline, the stronger the brand, and the more willing customers, employees, and lenders will be to invest — financially and emotionally.

And because the business operates in an environment (the natural world and the economy) that is alive and inherently unpredictable, that meaning/outline has to be updated over time. A crisis might bring a relationship/conversation to an end. Or it might provide the clarity that reveals what the relationship is for — what its shared meaning is — in a way that brings the relationship back to life. Either Kodak or Apple.

So what Bateson is really telling us here is that the thing that matters most, more important than being alive or having an absolute outline, is creating a balance of the two: creating clear outlines that fit with what it means to be alive, and updating those meanings/outlines over time.

This, ultimately, is why Bateson left the meaning of this conversation unclear, and why it wanders all over the place, like a hedgehog in a game of croquet, with diversions that might or might not be relevant. (And we can’t know until it is over.) Because the point of this conversation is to force us to make sense of it for ourselves.

In a changing world, the leaders and businesses that do best will be those that find the best balance between what it is to have a clear outline and what it is to be alive.

We can apply this approach on multiple levels: as people, as leaders, as businesses, and in our conversations and our relationships.

The next metalogue explores this further.

Photo By ashley norquist via

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