Henri Bortoft died peacefully at home in Matlaske, Norfolk, on December 29th, aged 74 years. He is survived by his wife Jackie, his daughter Laura, sons Arron and Michael, and grandchildren Ella, Ben and Darcy and brother of Michael. May he rest peacefully, greatly loved by family, colleagues and students.
David Seamon - Encountering the Whole: Henri Bortoft (1938-2012)
In October, 1972, as a 24-year-old American, I arrived to become a student at philosopher J. G. Bennett’s International Academy for Continuous Education, a remarkable educational experiment in facilitating self-knowledge and self-transformation, grounded largely in the “fourth-way” philosophy of Gurdjieff. Over the next ten months, Bennett’s major aim was to get his some 100 students, most of them young Americans and Brits, to see and understand themselves and the world in deeper, more engaged ways.
In working toward this aim, Bennett emphasized lectures, readings, meditative exercises, practical work in the big house and gardens, Gurdjieff’s sacred dances called “movements,” and seminars from visiting specialists, one of whom was physicist and science educator Henri Bortoft. During the 1972-73 Sherborne course, Henri offered us students two four-day seminars, one of which was called “The Hermeneutics of Science.”
Of the many ways in which Bennett’s Sherborne experience transformed my self-understanding, Henri’s seminars were one of the most important because he motivated us to realize there was another way of seeing that was more open and intensive than the arbitrary, piecemeal mode of knowing that standard educational systems emphasized. Henri’s primary teaching vehicle was Goethean science, which he introduced us to through a series of do-it-yourself perceptual exercises laid out by Goethe in his Theory of Colors (1810). I still have the notes in which I copied the key questions that Henri had us keep in mind as we looked at and attempted to see color phenomena:
- What do I see?
- What is happening?
- What is this saying?
- How is this coming to be?
- What belongs together?
- What remains apart?
- How does this belong together with itself?
- Is it itself?
- Can I read this in itself?
Henri played a major role in giving direction to my future professional life: An interest in phenomenology and the particular mode of phenomenological understanding offered by Goethe’s unique approach to looking and seeing. In the 1980s and early 1990s, Henri would write a series of essays on the nature of authentic wholeness. These essays would eventually become the chapters of his extraordinarily creative The Wholeness of Nature, published in 1996. To me, this book is one of the great, unheralded works of our time – perhaps arriving too soon for many people to understand. But I believe firmly that this work is a harbinger of a new way of engaging with the world that will grow in intensity and significance as the 21st century unfolds.
What is this new way of encountering and understanding? One of Henri’s most cogent portrays is in his 1971 essay, “The Whole: Counterfeit and Authentic,” published in Bennett’s quarterly journal, Systematics, There, Henri wrote:
We cannot know the whole in the way in which we know things because we cannot recognize the whole as a thing. If the whole were available to be recognized in the same way as we recognize the things which surround us, then the whole would be counted among these things as one of them. So we could point and say ‘here is this’ and ‘there is that’ and ‘that’s the whole over there’.
If we could do this we would know the whole in the same way that we know its parts, for the whole itself would simply be numbered among its pats, so that the whole would be outside of its parts in just the same way that each part is outside all the other parts…
But the whole comes into presence within its parts, so we cannot encounter the whole in the same way as we encounter the parts. Thus we cannot know the whole in the way that we know things and recognize ourselves knowing things. So we should not think of the whole as if it were a thing…, for in so doing we effectively deny the whole inasmuch as we are making as if to externalize that which can presence only within the things which are external with respect to our awareness of them (vol. 9, no. 2, p. 56).
Henri Bortoft (1938‒2012): a personal memory by C.J. Moore, Henri’s editor at Floris Books, UK
I first met Henri Bortoft at a Goethean gathering in Oxford in the 1990s and was bowled over by the lucidity and enthusiasm of his teaching. As we know, these two qualities do not always go together. Henri was also supportive of the science and philosophy list that I was trying to build up at Floris Books. We published his Wholeness of Nature in collaboration with Lindisfarne Press in the US. Then we were not in touch for a long while, though the grapevine told me that a new book was in preparation. In November 2011, I contacted him to ask how that was going. He said he would reply in a few days.
To my surprise and delight, within days a major part of the text of his new book arrived. Destiny was playing a part here, as we worked on the final draft of the book and had it ready for publication a year or so after that exchange of messages.
It was a joy to work with Henri. I had such admiration for his intellect, and he showed such patience and concern during our discussions to bring the book to its final form. It was important for him that it was not taken as another Goethean study, as the scope of his vision was much broader this time, going right back to Plato and exploring the thought of the twentieth century continental philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer. After much debate about the title, the work appeared in October 2012 as Taking Appearance Seriously.
Henri was more than happy, on his side, to have the book finished and published before his health began to deteriorate badly. He wasn’t well enough to set up a book launch in London, but fulfilled his last teaching session at Schumacher College, only to be weakened then by further illness. After three weeks in hospital, he was able to return home for Christmas with his family, where he passed away in the afternoon of December 29.
Great teachers live their teaching, and Henri was one of the greats, whose very presence and words transmitted the depth and humanity of his insight. He will be missed and mourned, but I rejoice that his book is out there in the world, continuing to bring to us the illuminating spirit of his life and work.
C J Moore, December 31, 2012
The following tribute is republished with permission from Schumacher College:
It was with great sadness that we learnt of Henri Bortoft’s passing away on the 29th December 2012.
Henri was a hugely important philosopher of science, and, in his earlier days, an outstanding physicist who had worked closely with David Bohm on the implications of quantum mechanics for our understanding of wholeness.
Henri was much more than an intellectual; he was an alchemist of the imagination. His work was concerned with the dynamics of life as it is lived, rather than with mere ideas. He went beyond a purely physical understanding of wholeness to explore a living sense of how we can truly experience the world in a manner deeply inspired by Goethe, as encapsulated in his first book The Wholeness of Nature (Floris Books, 1996).
Henri was a founding teacher on the college’s MSc in Holistic Science with his friend and colleague Professor Brian Goodwin, the principal instigator of our groundbreaking postgraduate degree. Henri faithfully taught on the course each year from its inception in 1998 until 2012, when, already quite unwell, he made the huge effort of travelling to the college to teach for three days, a contribution that was hugely appreciated by the MSc students and indeed by everyone at the college.
Henri’s work is the foundation not only of the MSc itself, but also of the expanded science that is so sorely needed in this time of global crisis – a science that values an intuitive knowing of nature’s qualities as much as conventional quantitative approaches.
Henri’s intellectual and intuitive grasp of science, and of its history and philosophy were extraordinary. His presence, his powerful dynamism and his eloquence brought his considerable insights to life within the minds and souls of the many students who were privileged to learn with him over the years here at the college. During his sessions we knew that we were in the presence of a truly great philosopher whose understanding of the nature of wholeness, the history and philosophy of science, of phenomenology and of Goethe’s way of science were deeply original and transformative.
Henri’s new book, Taking Appearance Seriously, published in October 2012 by Floris Books, brings to a culmination Henri’s 40 years of innovative exploration and understanding of life on its own terms. It is fitting that so many of the formative ideas he worked on in his teaching at the college are now out in the world, and that he finished this hugely important work just before his passing. We will continue to work with Henri’s ideas here at the college, and we are deeply grateful for his dedication to our MSc in Holistic Science.
Further tributes from friends, students and readers of Henri
I am one of those people who never met Henri Bortoft in person and yet whose life was very much affected by him through his writings. Even while I studied hermeneutics and phenomenology at the doctoral level and have taught in the field for over 35 years, Henri’s articles on wholeness remain, in my mind, as examples of some of the best and clearest explanations of how we interpret the world. It is not a simple matter to take complex philosophical works and make them legible to a non-philosophical audience and yet, Henri was expert at doing so. His exploration of the meaning of wholes as more than mere “Super-Parts” paves the way for some of the most creative thinking about the world as it is experienced first-hand. While he has passed away as we all must do, certainly his legacy is in the memories that he has left with those who knew him. But his legacy also remains in his writings from which, thankfully, young people will continue to benefit. He will be remembered and honored for a long time to come.
[Editor's note - Dr. Ingrid Stefanovic regularly references Henri's philosophy in her works on environmental philosophy and architecture. She has written a much longer tribute to Henri in the Spring 2013 issue of Environmental and Architectural Phenomenology which can be downloaded here. This edition has been published with many articles relating to Henri in honour of his memory.]
Henri’s work profoundly influenced my thinking, particularly as regards the act of music; or more properly, the act of musicking.
Once and for all you revealed to me that the act of understanding is an active movement of our consciousness. Once the movement stopped we can only remember. Thank you.
Immortally inspiring! Thank you Henry!
Henri – I can vividly see him doing his 180 degree jump to demonstrate looking upstream and downstream… there was a man who walked his talk.
Henri Bortoft was the only teacher at Schumacher who I saw as being from the old-school. He seemed to carry the weight of traditions in his words, he was clear in his views of what he appreciated and didn’t (often to the frustration of MSc students), and he firmly held true to the long-trodden philosophical path he had created.
At the very beginning of his week-long marathon lecture series at the College, I watched him almost nervously fumble around with objects on his desk, make a joke or two and tell stories about phenomenologist thinkers, as if avoiding beginning. After a short pause and a sigh, he looked up and said, “well, I suppose I’ll have to begin now….. Neitzsche said beginnings can be very expensive……”. What followed was an unbroken flow of discourse that gathered enormous momentum, accelerated and took off, rising to a point where he seemed to hold his idea almost tangibly in front of us in the room. He juggled this idea afloat for the rest of the week, offering new perspective and insight into one and the same concept, with each toss and turn of a throw. It was an incredible exposition of the unity, dynamism and diversity he himself experienced simultaneously in the world, delivered with an energy and intensity that has left a strong and lasting impression on me.
Henri would say that his lectures exhausted him, hence his apprehension at beginning them. In them, we could see that he was a philosopher who lived his work and who stayed true to his ideas whatever their effect on his health. He was a rare academic in a field led by institutionalism, one who has left us much, so much, to be getting on with.
Henri Bortoft presented a guest lecture at the International Academy For Continuous Education 1972-73. I remember saying something to Henri about my practice to at times memorize quotes from Shakespeare and at times to remember them by repeating. Henri replied you had come in contact with language. I didn’t then understand what this meant, but over time Henri’s brief reply has been very meaningful indeed.
Henri is the man who helped me find the right words to describe my human experience and enabled me to exit the black hole of uncertainty to enter into a beautiful dance between the structure and ambiguity of my life, without anxiety. He helped me develop a new way of seeing that taught me to create authentic meaning and therefore a meaningful existence. A true genius!!! We will miss you Henri.
I was at Schumacher on New Years Eve when Juliana (ex-MSc) shared the news with me. I was deeply saddened, and still can’t quite believe it. The timing of his passing felt incredibly poignant – at the dawning of a new year, and in line with the Mayan calendar and our current astrology, the dawning of a new era and of a new 26,000 year astrological cycle. I feel like Henri gave all he possibly could to build a bridge between the old and the new. He put himself out on a precarious ledge to build the stepping stones that will lead the next generation (us) to new ways of seeing that are the necessary foundations for a holistic worldview, and for more peaceful, meaningful, relational ways of being and doing on this Earth. I feel truly honoured to have shared in some of this pioneering journey with him, even if only in a very small way. I feel even more honoured for my experience to be the final point of reference in his latest and last work – and I also feel the intense gravity of the new possibilities that are held in that handing over of the baton to all who choose to follow the stepping stones that he has so masterfully revealed for us. I send Henri much love, warm thanks, and wish for an infinity of new adventures.
While discussing where my studies might lead next, I grandly announced to my tutor, Psychologist Joe Griffin, that I intended to read Henri Bortoft’s ‘The Wholeness of Nature’. A grin spread over Joe’s face and he replied ‘Oh yes, well that’ll stretch you!’ After repeated attempts, the problem of wholes and parts started to sink in and, almost as if my head had been given a sharp twist, Henri’s writings turned my world upside down. All of a sudden the world looked completely different and solutions appeared in the place of problems. I’m still very much a beginner but Henri’s books have made a huge difference to my work; Henri once said that he had hoped for people to use the ideas he had made available in fields other than science.
I met him only once; at an Institute for Cultural Research weekend seminar where educational failures like me can rub shoulders with prize winning authors, artists, poets, mathematicians and polymathic scientists like Henri Bortoft. He treated my self-interested enquiries about sensory imagination with kindness and genuine concern for the learning needs of a total stranger.
Making comparisons with other scientists and thinkers doesn’t seem in keeping with the spirit of his life but, suffice to say that, in an age where celebrity scientists devote more and more attention to self-promotion, Henri Bortoft was the real deal; a priceless jewel in a marketplace of glass.
I’m close to finishing Henri’s most recent book, ‘Taking Appearance Seriously’, and was going to post a review of it (it is one of the most astonishing and important books I’ve ever read, if a read which requires serious attention!). Anyway I just saw that Jim had shared this.
I once asked Dr Bortoft after a lecture what he had made of the speaker (enthusiastic Neo-Darwinist Matt Ridley, as I recall). His reply stays with me: “I don’t feel the need to make a judgment – I’m just letting his words wash over me”. It was gently said, but a powerful rebuke nonetheless. Anyway, I’m just letting the news of his passing wash over me…
Henri Bortoft was a huge influence on me. I met him for the first time in 1987 when Pat Williams invited me to a weekend seminar he was running at her flat, of ‘Goethe’s Way of Science’. All I knew about Goethe was that he was a German Romantic poet – and I couldn’t imagine why I would be interested in that. But I went along all the same, and what happened on that weekend changed my life. Henri’s impetus set me on a journey that has lasted 26 years already, and took in the sometimes abstruse philosophy of Heidegger and Gadamer, introduced me to Owen Barfield (the most interesting – and forgotten – of the ‘Inklings’), got me reading about the History of Science, got me carrying out Goethean observations of all sorts of things from clouds to colours, opened my eyes to Anthrosophical scientists like Wolfgang Schad, Theodor Schwenk and Craig Holdredge, and many other things besides (including a pilgrimage to Goethe’s house in Weimar).
Henri spent most of his career teaching physics to boys at Tonbridge School – about which David Wade once remarked that the School had ‘hired a tiger to do their mousing’. But he had begun as research assistant to Quantum Physicist David Bohm and had collaborated for many years with mathematician and mystic J.G. Bennett. When I knew him he was Secretary (I think that’s right) to the Institute for Cultural Research – the London based multi-disciplinary body that Idries Shah started in the 1960s.
Henri was one of the greatest explainers – patient, concise, almost unbelievably erudite (I remember him quoting a long passage from Galileo while he fished around in his bag trying to find the book from which it came). Introducing the eminent mathematician Sir Roger Penrose at an ICR lecture, he gave such a brilliant synopsis of what Sir Roger was about to say that the speaker was momentarily speechless (I suspect a condition he didn’t experience very often!) and said: “After that introduction there is really no need for me to give this talk…!” Henri was also a person who was genuinely interested in others’ ideas and didn’t feel threatened by them. In another memorable moment he described the great German hermeneutic philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer, then in his eighties, at a conference in Oxford. “He listened to every single presentation and from his questions you could see that he was not criticizing the presenters, but was listening to their intention. He was trying to help them in their way of self-manifestation.” It was clear from the way he said this that Henri aspired to do exactly this too. (Not only that, but he modelled it in his own life).
Henri will, however, undoubtedly be remembered most his two extraordinary books. ‘The Wholeness of Nature’ introduces the reader to a completely different way of looking at the world, of incalculable significance for the present and future, through the lens of Goethe’s remarkable way of doing science. After it was published many of us badgered Henri to write something about the hermeneutic and phenomenological philosophy in which he was so versed, and which is introduced in the later chapters. ‘Taking Appearance Seriously’ is the fruit – fifteen years on – of that badgering, and does a masterly job of setting this ‘dynamic way of seeing’ in the context of cognition and language.
Few people get to achieve something quite so substantial in their lives, or to live those lives so well. Rather than being sad at Henri’s death, I feel something closer to envy. What an amazing man, whose greatest achievement was to ‘walk his own talk’ – and let others see from this walking how they could do the same.
The news of Henry’s passing away came to me as a deep shock. He made such an impact on me, guiding me to explore the wholeness of nature and find union with natural phenomena. I am sure Goethe himself would be very proud of him! He was one of those rare lecturers who could keep me spellbound for the entire length of the lesson. I loved his sharp, dry sense of humour and I have missed him since I left Schumacher. My deepest condolences to the family and to all who loved him.
I’ll never forget henry explaining to the 2011 Msc Holistic Science class that we have to go ‘upstream’ to the ‘seeing of what is being seen!’ and that we have to “catch sayings in the act!”. We all sat there looking with blank expressions as he kindle lead us towards an alive & engaging way of seeing the world- for which I’ll always be grateful!
Megan de Beyer
I have been a “student” (in spirit, not in person) of Henri’s and Bohm for as long as I can remember (I am a Ph.D. physicist specializing in complex adaptive systems, but whose soul is at least as tuned to matters more spiritual and aesthetic). Henri leaves a profound legacy of the deepest insights that will help propel and evolve science forward in the coming generation(s).
Henri was a brilliant man who shared his knowledge with generosity.
My thoughts goes to this family. Forever grateful for his profound teachings.
I received news of Henri’s passing as I sat in the Meditation Room at Schumacher. His passing at year’s end feels poignant and I am so moved. I was and remain humbled and immensely appreciative to have been here for his last scheduled Schumacher lectures in September, and having the opportunity to listen to portions of the last lecture on the last day of his MSc teachings. The conversation we shared over a meal is etched. Thank you for your work and being, Henri Bortoft.
The Wholeness of Nature opened dimensions of the world that would otherwise have remained closed to me.
This is such sad news to hear at the year’s turning… I gained so much from the week that he taught at Schumacher last year. Long may his words and memory inspire new generations of students of phenomenology as he did for me. My thoughts go out to his family at this difficult time of transition.
Henri opened new doors for me that I’m still exploring over a decade after my Msc work at Schumacher. He will be missed.
Thanks for all that you have done Henri
I am grateful for the things he taught.
I’m so grateful for Henri’s teachings – what a remarkable soul he was. Bless him on his journey – he will be missed.
I am deeply grateful to Henri for that first ‘mind blowing’ introduction to the MSc in Holistic Science. I stumbled into Henri’s class after a 30 plus hours journey, little sleep and ‘new’ everything and everyone. I remind myself regularly that it is “…to the things themselves… away from explanation…”
Amazing human being, may he rest in peace and love.
Very sad news… I’m thankful for being one of his students…
I’m sure I am like many of us who will be reflecting on the enormous contribution Henri made to all our learning journeys during the years he taught on the MSc. What a privilage!!! Go well into the new phase of your wholeness Henri.
Clever, funny, giving. Henri took words to places I thought they couldn’t go. A great teacher. Rest in Peace
Written by Joseph Stodgel in the Snack Room at Schumacher College, this song is a tribute to the great philosopher and physicist Henri Bortoft, one of the core teachers on the Holistic Science MSc. His words echo deep in the song – “The theory will appear from the facts, it will shine from the phenomenon.” and his teachings that we can experience how “We belong already” instead of attempting to explain or make believe ourselves into relation and connection through intricate and “advanced” but ultimately disparate theory and over-intellectualisation. My confounding words here are an example of this. We belong already – no need to make believe.
Performed here one fine night in the light of a fire in Brian’s Garden at Schumacher College.