Book Review Taking Appearance Seriously by Henri Bortoft

‘Henri Bortoft is one of the world’s foremost experts on Goethean science. Here he extends the argument of his earlier work The Wholeness of Nature to articulate a new history and philosophy of science with an emphasis on a dynamic way of understanding that highlights process rather than product, the coming into being rather than the end result. This represents a fundamental shift away from abstraction to lived sensory experience, and from the dominance of left-hemisphere thinking to a more integrated approach. This is a seminal text that deserves the widest audience.’

— David Lorimer, Scientific and Medical Network

‘Taking Appearance Seriously is a rare philosophical work of both outstanding quality and immense practicality, written to guide the reader into really experiencing what Henri Bortoft calls the dynamic way of seeing: a radically aware way of thinking and comprehending our complex world which is as applicable in the creative arts and business world as it is in science.’

— Simon Robinson, editor of Transition Consciousness

Taking Appearance Seriously – The Dynamic Way of Seeing in Goethe and European Thought

Henri Bortoft (2012) Floris Books

In 2009 I was taught for a week by Henri Bortoft at Schumacher College. His teachings form the basis for the groundbreaking masters degree in Holistic Science which is taught there, and which Henri created twenty years ago along with ecologist Stephan Harding, Goethian scientist Margaret Colquhoun and the late visionary biologist Brian Goodwin.

After graduating in 2010 I have spent the previous two years moving back and forth between Scotland and Brazil where I am now resident. Henri’s philosophy has been a huge influence in my life, which now forms the foundations of my teachings of chaos and complexity theory, innovation, creativity and sustainability to business students and executives from a wide range of backgrounds, from engineering, product development, marketing, business strategy and HR.

Teaching Goethe’s theory of colour

Henri’s previous book The Wholeness of Nature – Goethe’s Way of Science was published in 1996. Many consider it to be the clearest work written on Goethe’s delicate empiricism. In his new work Henri says that he was able to “recognise what Goethe was doing, instead of being limited only to what he was saying”. This then is the first major clue as to why we need to listen to Henri, who explains why we may have failed in the past to grasp what he calls the dynamic way of thinking:

The significance of this dynamic way of understanding easily gets lost in the obfuscations of philosophers who, in their endless attempts to justify what they are doing, all too often succeed only in covering it over with a dense layer of what to others seems to be just impenetrable jargon. The vision gets lost, and what is left descends into an intellectual exercise, which turns round upon itself endlessly until it ceases to be of interest to any but a few.

To read both the Wholeness of Nature, and then Taking Appearance Seriously is to be given a radically new way of thinking, a dynamic way of thinking which is not purely dependent on words and symbols, not entirely dependent on analytical thinking, breaking problems down into parts, modelling them, limiting them, and then putting them back together into a counterfeit whole.

For the last three years I have worked hard to really experience the ideas of Henri. As Henri told us in class “we have to do the philosophical work”. In developing this dynamic way of thinking I feel that I can now comprehend much better why conversations fail, why our thinking restricts our creativity, and why we are unable to grasp through our faculties of intuition complex dynamic and organic living systems.

Discussing the appearance of meaning using an illustration from The Wholeness of Nature

Taking Appearance Seriously is a philosophical work. It is not a business book, it is not a marketing book, it is not a book about sustainability. There is no mention of the internet, twitter, hash tags, mega trends, social networks, branding, iphones, smart phones, Apple, Instagram, facebook, business models, profit, loss, or even television, money or profit. There are no hipsters, teenagers, generation Y, generation flux, no theories about design thinking, emotional branding, storytelling, agile enterprises, co-creation, triple bottom line, mental mapping, brain storming, human resources, accounting or business strategy. I think the only company mentioned is IBM, whose “somewhat bemused management”  Henry gave a talk to in the 1960s on ‘The Hermeneutics of the Organisation.”

Those globally known business thinkers who cite Henri, such as Peter Senge, Otto Scharmer and Thomas Johnson are not mentioned, not even once. The latest trends in science such as chaos theory, complexity theory are not mentioned.

So why am I reviewing in the context of organisational thinking?

Henri’s book is about undoing 2,500 years or so of intellectual damage, and this is the level of damage which can not be undone in a matter of hours or days. It will take a lot of philosophical work indeed. In all our human endeavours we perhaps do not appreciate just how influential scientific thinking is in our lives which are now dominated with networking, be it social networks on the internet, business networks in commerce, or new models of networks in science. Many people though, according to Henri, get their thinking backwards when conceiving networks:

Any entity is what it is only within a network of relations. So instead of being an atomic existence it is in fact holistic. When we think materialistically of the world as being ‘made up’ of separate and independent entities, which are like building blocks, then we really have got it backwards:

The attempt to rationally reconstruct the world out of a collocation of ‘bits’ contingently related to one another is as futile as the attempt to appreciate a symphony by sounding each note in isolation and then imagining a relation among them.

These separate ‘building blocks’ only seem to be such when we begin ‘downstream’, whereas when we go ‘upstream’ we discover that the world is intrinsically holistic. So the question becomes, not how do entities which are separate and independent become related to one another, but how does it seem that there are such separate and independent entities in the first place? We find the answer when we go ‘upstream’ into the primary act of distinction, where we discover that relation is intrinsic to distinction, and that things only appear to be separate and independent when attention is focused ‘downstream’ on what is distinguished.

It is almost an overwhelming experience to attempt to reduce Taking Appearance Seriously down to a short review when there are so many radically new concepts that Henri introduces to us. In this single text Henri explores Goethe’s way of science, phenomenology, and hermeneutics. What are these?

Goethe teaches us that another way of science is possible which complements mainstream science, and this is a science which allows us to appreciate the qualities of reality and not just quantities. It is a science which allows us to explore the nature of colour, instead of reducing light and experience merely to mathematical models of abstract rays. Through Goethe’s way of science we can learn to re-encounter nature in a manner which we never could through traditional scientific thinking:

But just as, according to Descartes, mathematical physics takes us ‘out of’ the body and separates us from nature, so the lived body can bring us into the presencing of nature. Such an encounter would be an impossibility within the framework of modern science, and yet it is only by awakening to this that we will really understand what is at stake in our relationship to the natural environment, and at the same time begin to wake up from our enthralment by the artificial world of technology.

Phenomenology teaches us how to shift our attention within experience, drawing attention back from what is experienced – i.e. where the focus of attention is on the what – into the experiencing of what is experienced. When we do this we begin to understand how it is possible for objects to appear to us and how our lived experience.

Hermeneutics is the study of how we are able to understand written texts, but as Henri says it has also been developed to help us understand any form of cultural expression, from the simplest to the most complex. Hermeneutics therefore is alternative route to understanding systems, one which led Henri to realising that “systems thinking could in fact be replaced by hermeneutic thinking in the context of human organisations.”

Master and Emissary by Robert McPartland

The genius I feel lies in Henri’s ability to move beyond a discussion of specific philosophies such as the science of Goethe, hermeneutics and phenomenology, into a deeper level of perception that is able to grasp what is common to these movements, the dynamic way of seeing. The importance of this, and also the reason why this dynamic way of thinking may be so hard for us to comprehend in the first instance is that we are trapped in the left brain way of conceiving the world:

Although the experience of wholeness has always been identified with the right half of the brain, it is now recognised that every characteristic of experience is in fact mediated through both sides of the brain, and consequently this must also be the case with wholeness. According to Iain McGilchrist: ‘the right hemisphere delivers what is new as it “presences” – before the left hemisphere gets to represent it’. Where the right hemisphere mediates the lived experience of wholeness, the left hemisphere mediates its representation – it replaces experience with a model of experience, which then gets confused with and mistaken for experience itself. The wholeness of the system is the left brain representation of the wholeness which presences through the right brain. This explains why it is that the systems approach seems to be dealing with wholeness, but does so in an artificial way that is a counterfeit of authentic wholeness.

The prevailing wisdom in business is that we are now moving out of the industrial age and into the knowledge age. However, I for one see that we are drowning in data and information, but we are not necessarily able to develop our knowledge, and the whole notion is wisdom is all but absent from business thinking, which still is a slave to the notion of infinite growth on our finite planet. In this knowledge economy in which we live the majority of business education is centred around new ideas, new frameworks, methodologies and “paradigms”. Saying that we need a new paradigm is so easy to say, but rarely have I seen any business thinker, writer or theorist display any sense of undergoing an inner transition to be able to comprehend an entirely new conception of reality. More often than not, what is termed a new paradigm is in fact just a new idea which comfortably fits into the existing world view.

Virtually no business training is based on the most fundamental levels of thinking and comprehending reality. Virtually no business training examines language, meaning and the nature of thinking to the degree that Henri does, and yet this surely is the greatest source of competitive advantage, creativity, insight, and wisdom an organisation and people can have? What we learn from Henri is of course just as applicable to those in the arts and sciences as in the business world, giving us an understanding of the limitations of our current way of thinking and a doorway into the dynamic way of thinking.

Henri teaching students at Schumacher College, September 2010. Photo credit

There is a wonderful section in chapter 5 on the differences between language as disclosure and language as representation. Henri discusses the well known case of Helen Keller to really bring this out:

In Helen Keller’s experience, the word ‘water’ says water in the sense that it shows water (not points to it), whereby water appears. The word does not designate water after it has first appeared. But after water has appeared we take it that this is what the word does, because we are now ‘downstream’ at the stage where it seems that the word is separate from the thing, and consequently that the word is no more than a label we attach to the thing – so that language becomes merely representational.

Henri further explores the differences between disclosure and representation in the final chapter:

When we turn to language itself, the shift of attention ‘upstream’ from what appears to the appearance of what appears, takes us into the difference between language as disclosure and language as representation. It is very clear here that, although we may talk about language as a prison which shuts us off from the world, this is true only in the case of the representational mode of language. In the disclosive mode, on the other hand, language opens us to the appearance of the world.This is the reversal we find when we shift ‘upstream’ from language as representation to language as disclosure. Language is no longer an obstacle between ourselves and the world, but the very means by which the world itself comes to appearance.

Nowadays I really look out for how people are using language. I look to see if someone is stuck so to speak in the representational world of language and their intellectual minds. Our societies have become broken, and much of this could perhaps be attributed to a breakdown in our thinking, which caught up in a world of subjects and objects is only fragmented, and where the wholeness of our lived experience, live as we live it and not as it is represented to us remains hidden.

The good news is that although much of what I have been discussing may seem either abstract or obscure, or unattainable, by reading Taking Appearance Seriously we can begin to move into this dynamic way of thinking. As Henri says in his introduction:

This book is more ‘practical’ than it looks. Above all, it is not nearly as difficult to follow as the reader unfamiliar with European philosophy might expect. I have tried to write it in such a way that anyone who reads it slowly enough to follow the movement of thinking in the language, should find they begin to experience the dynamic way of seeing for themselves.

One aspect of Taking Appearance Seriously which really stands out is the quality of the footnotes. I read the book twice, the first time focussing just on the main body of the book, and the second time reading much slower and spending time dwelling in the extensive and expansive footnotes. It is interesting reading the book having been taught by Henri, as parts of his lectures focus on points covered in the footnotes, and so in reading him it really is worth spending time reading through these in detail as they provide much texture and clarity to the main discussion.

Henri has not written Taking Appearance Seriously to appeal to a minority of philosophers who only inhabit the academic sphere. He has not written the book in such a way as to demonstrate to us all his great intellect. Henri is a phenomena himself, a person of remarkable insight but greatly humble in nature. I do not know if I have achieved in describing just how important I feel his work is to us, and of what vast scope it is, but if you are serious about developing the quality of your thinking, you certainly should be reading Taking Appearance Seriously.

Taking Appearance Seriously is published by Floris Books in the UK, ISBN-10: 0863159273, 208 Pages, paperback.

To purchase:

Taking Appearance Seriously on Floris Books

Taking Appearance Seriously on

Taking Appearance Seriously on (release date Jan 1st 2013)

22 responses to “Book Review Taking Appearance Seriously by Henri Bortoft

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