Encountering Henri Bortoft

Now that I am beginning to lecture and teach complexity, many people are asking me about who I teach, and what my key references are. This is quite a difficult question to answer on a number of levels, especially when you are trying to teach people that “thinking” is just one of the ways of knowing the world, and that “sensing”, “feeling” and “intuition” are just as important.

One very key person who I admire greatly and who I base much of my work around is that of Henri Bortoft, author of the book “The Wholeness of Nature: Goethe’s Way of Science”.  I remember reading this book for the first time around February 2009, in preparation for my MSc in Holistic Science at Schumacher College.  I had been recommended this book since Henri teaches the first week of the MSc, and Henri’s philosophy provides one of the foundation stones for the course.  But on reading the book I remember being quite lost, and to be quite honest I really understood very little of what was in it. I have since re-read the book twice, and it was probably on the third attempt at reading that things really began to make sense.

What I have done in the last year is a lot of thinking, and this may not make too much sense but I have thought a lot about why people do not really understand Henri’s work. Since the early 1990s there have been a large number of books written and published on the topic of complexity and systems thinking, but I would say none so deep as Henri. The reason is that Henri is a phenomenologist, a philosopher who thinks about our lives as we experience them.  This can be quite different to a scientific and cognitive analysis of psychology, where our conscious selves are written out of the picture.

Also, Henri writes a lot about the scientific methodology and the impact that this has had on our way of seeing the and understanding the world.  This is so embedded within us that it can be quite difficult, or impossible for many, to conceive of any other way of knowing the world, especially when in the West the value of intellectual thought, the ability to think rationally, logically and in abstract symbols is valued so highly.

The value in Henri’s work is to help us understand the process of thinking, what it’s limitations are, and how we can avoid the traps of being blinkered by the scientific methodology.  While the scientific methodology of the last 400 years has enabled great scientific and engineering breakthroughs, with the development of complexity theory, people in both science and business are now coming to realise that there are limits to the materialistic and reductionist paradigm, and to paraphrase Einstein, our consciousness has created problems that require a higher level of consciousness to solve them.

I recently read a paper written by Henri in 1971, and so I thought that rather than just tell people to read his book, that perhaps a better starting point was to review this instead, since in this paper Henri covers some of his fundamental themes, the primary one being that of wholeness.


Systematics, Vol.s No. 9, 1971

Henri’s background is quantum physics, and he studied the problem of wholeness in physics with David Bohm. I will no doubt rite a lot more about Bohm at a later stage, but at this stage I should say that Bohm can be thought of as one of the greatest thinkers of the 20th century, whose works covered quantum physics, relativity, thought, dialogue, creativity and social issues. Henri would later study with J.G. Bennett, a path which would eventually lead to him teaching phenomenology.

Before we look at Henri’s paper, maybe a good starting point would be to look at Herbert Simon’s classic definition of a complex system:

Roughly, by a complex system I mean one made up of a large number of parts that interact in a nonsimple way. In such systems, the whole is more than the sum of the parts, not in an ultimate, metaphysical sense, but in the important pragmatic sense that, given the properties of the parts and the laws of their interaction, it is not a trivial matter to infer the properties of the whole. In the face of complexity, an in-principle reductionist may be at the same time a pragmatic holist.

The Architecture of Complexity Herbert A. Simon Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 106, No. 6. (Dec. 12, 1962), pp. 467-482

In this short definition, we begin to encounter the way in which different people have quite different ways of understanding a system, any system, be it simple or complex, in terms of the whole, and the parts. If you think of a car engine, the whole is pretty much the parts, but Simon is suggesting that a complex system is more than the sum of the parts, but only in a pragmatic way due to the difficulty of understanding the system.  Henri though does not start discussing wholeness by invoking the metaphors of a machine. He begins by drawing to our attention three different paradigms for understanding wholeness, and these are the hologram, the gravitational universe, and reading a text.

It is so interesting for me that many systems thinkers, and experts in complexity invoke Isaac Newton and his “Newtonian” mechanistic clockwork universe when describing the old paradigm.  However, Henri leads us to asking the question, was Newton a Newtonian?

Thus the universe as a whole is a gravitational hologram, and a new significance is given to mass by suggesting that it is the ‘gravitational presence’ of the whole universe in a region, in a manner analogous to the way in which the whole picture is ‘present’ in any region of the optical hologram.

Newton himself knew that gravitational attraction was not a property of matter, and he said so. This is surprising to us, because we think it is just that. Newton warned explicitly against thinking of a physical force like a push, a pull, or an impulse; and he vigorously rejected action-at-a-distance. His pupils took no notice of this counsel and it was they who shaped what we have come to recognize as “Newtonian Physics”. This misadventure of the principle of gravitation was completed and sealed by the development of the concept of the “gravitational field”, a concept which was introduced by way of compensation for the difficulties which had arisen from thinking of gravitation as a physical property of matter residing in a force acting at a distance.

Gravitation can be understood only in terms of the whole  universe; but we do not yet have the language for the whole.

Another paradigm that Henri uses is that of the “hermeneutic circle” and the phenomena of reading a text.  This is perhaps a strange model to use in order to understand a system, since surely the “meaning” of the text does not actually exist, or if it does it is purely subjective, in the eyes of the beholder? The value lies in understanding the “coming into being” of the meaning of the text as an active and dynamic process. This active and dynamic element of understanding the interplay between the parts and the whole is more than often lost in systems thinking.

Thus, in order to read meaningfully it is necessary to understand in advance what will be said, and yet this understanding can come only from the reading. Similarly, it is necessary to understand in order to express, yet understanding comes only through expression. More specifically, we must grasp the words to express the sentence, but the way of saying the words comes from the sentence. Put this way it appears paradoxical that we should ever be able to speak, read or write meaningfully. Put generally, the paradox of the hermeneutic circle is that to understand the whole we must understand the parts, but to understand the parts we must understand the whole.

In the second part of the paper, Henri draws our attention to the relationship between the parts of a system and the whole. we can compare Henri’s viewpoint with that of Herbert. For Henri, neither the parts, nor the whole have primacy in a system:

We are accustomed to thinking of going from parts to whole in some sort of summative manner. We think of developing the whole, even of making the whole, on the practical basis of putting parts together, making them fit, plugging gaps, balancing and stabilizing, and so on. Thus we see the whole as developing by ‘integration of parts’. But this way of thinking places the whole secondary to the parts, though usually we do not notice this. It places the whole secondary because taken by itself it necessarily implies that the whole comes after the parts. It implies a linear sequence: first the parts, and then the whole. Thus it implies that the whole always comes later, later than its parts.

In this way of thinking, we talk about the whole coming to presence in the parts, as opposed to dominating the parts in a top-down system, or being subservient to the parts.  In this way of thinking, because the whole comes to presence in the parts, you can not have direct contact with the whole, it can not be described, and neither can it be abstracted or written down. The whole can only be experienced in one’s intuition as an encounter through the parts.

One of the problems we have therefore right here is that this I am sure will still seem quite abstract as a concept, and it is difficult to point to many case studies or examples where this kind of thinking has been used, in order to better cement the student’s understanding in what Henri is attempting to describe.  Henri explains that this is partly because in the western mindset, there is no place for the whole, and therefore in our Western consciousness we always attempt to be become spectators outside of the situation of which we are a participant.  Again, this suggests as Einstein suggested that we need a new level of consciousness, and I would say that this partly entails discovering new ways of encountering wholeness in systems.

Henri describes two forms of wholeness, authentic and counterfeit wholes. Science has lost sight of the whole, and can only therefore study counterfeit wholes, in which the whole no longer comes to presence in the parts, but is seen as a separate entity of thing which can be described objectively.  This is exactly the same approach that Henri sees in business management.

Looked at in terms of the wholesome encounter we can see immediately that the current managerial approach constitutes an attempt to stand outside of the organization, to take an overview of it as an object for observation and manipulation, and to try to put it together externally, piece by piece.

Henri returns to the concept of encounter when looking at how this kind of new thinking can be applied in business organisations, especially when thinking about human relationships:

An authentic relationship with another person begins with the turning around into the whole. We begin to understand the other person by becoming sensitive to him as an active absence. We cease from trying to grasp hold of the other person, to know him as an object, to work him out or to make him do things. We begin to let the other person be, becoming sensitive to him as a presence which comes towards us. We no longer know him only externally as an object in our awareness, but neither do we know him as he knows himself externally in his own awareness. We have begun to under-stand him as a presence which is tangible but invisible, greater and subtler than the manifest personality. Furthermore, we find that this kind of relationship is not dependent on coming together and separating, as it is in the case of a counterfeit relationship.

Again I know that all of this may well seem quite abstract, but I have begun to look at ways of making this comprehensible within a business context.  I first start by discussing mental models, and many of those mental models within science, such as Newton’s theory of light.  Henri is one of the world’s experts on the science of Goethe, who developed alternative scientific methodologies to those that we are all familiar with.  I therefore start with Goethe’s theory of colours, as this is so readily able to be demonstrated in a classroom context.

However, I now feel that I would like to take these lessons further with students, and for that I feel that I really need to begin to teach people about Goethe’s studies on the metamorphosis of plants. Without going into too much detail here, Goethe spent a huge amount of time really studying plants, which would lead him to being a great influence on the work of Charles Darwin. Goethe’s technique resulted in him feeling that he had had a truly deep encounter with the “whole plant”, this plant of which could only be grasped through his intuition, or as Goethe described, a new organ of perception, enabling an encounter with the plant which came to presence in the parts.

When I visit organisations, I can sometimes feel through my intuition if they are operating as an authentic or counterfeit wholes.  I feel that this ability to perceive this has come through my own Goethian studies with plants, which I was taught by Margaret Colquhoun, who has developed Pishwanton Wood into a centre for teaching Goethian science.  Henri discusses Goethe’s way of seeing the plant whole in great depth in his book “The Wholeness of Nature” but the point here is that since dialogue is so important in the resilience and development of an organisation, those organisations which are authentic, in which people are not seen simply as parts, but are seen as embodying the whole organisation which comes to presence through them, are really better able to stay together as a whole and not fragment in times of stress or re-organisation.

While I do of course encourage you to read “The Wholeness of Nature” you would be advised that the book is in no way easy to grasp on the first reading.  Henri uses language in a quite dynamical manner, in a way that is sometimes different to the fragmented nature of our language which so easily separates subject from object.  Henri really empahsised this dynamic nature of his philosophy to us in one of our classes with him:

If you read it carefully, (Henri’s essay on authentic and counterfeit wholes) the emphasis is on the reciprocation of the whole and the part.  Neither is dominant.  The whole depends on the parts and the parts depend on the whole.  The whole comes to presence in the parts and the parts are the place of the presencing of the whole.  You can’t have a dominant whole because the whole never becomes present as an object, it never comes out, you can’t put your finger on it.  You can’t say “here is this, here is that.  Oh look there is the whole there.”  The whole therefore depends on the parts in order to be whole, and indeed the parts depend on the whole to be parts, i.e. to be significant, instead of just nothing very much.  You need to take this dynamical picture.  Well nobody does.

So there you have it, one of my key reference books that I use to teach integral thinking.  If after having read Henri’s paper “The Whole: Counterfeit and Authentic” you may want to read his book. Henri himself said that it took him years to reach the stage of understanding that he had come to, and for the last few years he has been writing a new book where he is still trying to articulate those lessons that he has been teaching at Schumacher for the last few years.  This is not an easy path, as it involves a radical new way of knowing the world, but it is an amazing world, a living world, where one can truly encounter the wholeness of nature.

Related Articles

Book Review Taking Appearance Seriously Henri Bortoft

Henri Bortoft on Facebook

If you would like to link up with other researchers interested in the work of Henri Bortoft, there is now a group on facebook where you can now do so:


10 responses to “Encountering Henri Bortoft

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  8. Reblogged this on Vibrant Bliss and commented:
    This UNESCO World Philosophy Day 2013, I though it would be good to look for thinkers who are under appreciated. The (recently) late Henri Bortort is, I suspect, such a thinker. He was a phenomenologist whose major contributions revolve around our approach to complex systems, a phenomena which find significance in environmental science, linguistics, business, and digital technology, among other disciplines. (Please excuse the few grammatical errors and broken link to the Facebook group at the bottom- it’s a great article from a fascinating blog.)

  9. Reblogged this on Framework 21 and commented:
    Quote from this blog post: “The value in Henri’s work is to help us understand the process of thinking, what it’s limitations are, and how we can avoid the traps of being blinkered by the scientific methodology. “

  10. Pingback: What does a week with Henri Bortoft look like? | Transition Consciousness·

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