Mullings on the Pathological

The notion of “pathology” has been arising frequently in my conversations and correspondences. In fact, this past year has been an extraordinary opportunity to confront such a notion. We should start with what I mean by pathology or pathological? The dictionary definitions are rather narrow and shallow in terms of meaningfulness. However, when I discuss “pathology” or “pathological,” I am referring to a particular type of learning that has gone askew to the point of harming oneself, harming others, or harming the contexts in which one lives. Pathology can extend across scales from the minute to the global. A virus or bacteria may or may not be pathological in relationship to its context. There is one virus, Herpesvirus saimiri, that lives in a particular species of monkey. Unless something unusual occurs, the host monkeys suffer no ill effects. But, if another species of monkey tries to take over their territory, the H. saimiri virus infects and kills the invading monkeys (Buhner, 2014, see p. 108). Pathology seems to lie in the relationships and context. In such cases, the individual entity — the virus in this case — isn’t pathological, but when the context and relationships change, the pathology occurs within this dynamic. Another example is the Escherichia coli or E.coli bacteria. E. coli lives and thrives in our intestinal tract. In this particular location or context, this bacteria is helpful to our health and well-being. However, if this bacteria is ingested and ends up in our stomach, we get sick. When the contexts and relationships change, some complex sets processes are thrown off track and both the bacteria and the host can suffer a loss of life. So, for me, pathology and pathological refer to some situation (relationship, contexts, and processes) that cause harm or are destructive to an individual, a relationship, or any context that is typically autopoietic (i.e., self-sustaining, self-maintaining, self-repairing, self-transcending, and so forth), which is any living thing or any social or biological system.

And, to clarify the use of “pathology,” we all have our own pathologies. There may only be a few exceptional individuals who don’t have any pathologies. But, on the other hand, not all pathologies are equal. Some are more harmful than others. There are continuums (or “continua,” if you like) of fuzzily bounded pathologies within individuals and larger systems. But, many of these pathologies may only interfere with our lives occasionally or only at more subtle levels. Someone may have a chronic condition, such as a chronic viral infection, that may interfere with one’s activities and functioning one week, but then during another week, that person may function fairly normally. Or, one’s particular habitual patterns of obsessing about one’s weight or appearance or how they interact, may be problematic from time to time, but, in general, may not interfere with one’s functioning at work in at home. But, let’s take “anger” as a pathology. Getting angry occasionally may hurt someone else and one’s self at that moment. But, the anger may fade quickly and one’s relationships can be repaired. However, if that anger begins to dominate one’s relationship to the world, that anger festers and grow. It insidiously starts to infiltrate all aspects of life and can affect one’s health and all of one’s relationships. Such anger can act like a poison to everything it encounters, including one’s own psychological—physical health and well-being. Such poisonous emotions can affect social systems of various scales. As contexts contexts encounter one another, the “learning” of anger can spread.

There are people of note over the past year and right now who are propagating hate, fear, and anger. Such propagation of negative emotions is a pathological process of learning. It can spread from one individual to another and one context to another. And, such pathologies are dysfunctions in the relationships and contexts, and are ultimately destructive to those contexts and to other contexts that may serve as targets for hatred and as sources of fear.

But, suggesting that such situations are “just” sicknesses as a way of excusing the condition is not at all the issue here in this discussion of pathology. But, people do think or say, “oh, it was the way I was raised” or “ that just who I am.” Such statements are cop-outs. We do have opportunities to take control of our own lives and the way we relate to others. To blame others or to fall into familiar patterns of fear and hatred, is just like an addiction to alcohol or some other substance. We can break these feedback loops that perpetuate harmful or pathological ways of functioning and relating. We can stop destroying our environments and our social contexts.


Buhner, S. H. (2014). Plant intelligence and the imaginal realm: Into the dreaming of Earth. Rochester, VT: Bear & Company.

SEE also: Nora Bateson’s (2015) “Symmathesy – A Word in Progress: Proposing a New Word that Refers to Living Systems” ( — Provides a new and important perspective on learning.

About Jeff Bloom

I'm a Researcher with and am on the Advisory Board of the International Bateson Institute and am a professor emeritus with the Department of Teaching & Learning, College of Education, Northern Arizona University.
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