The Dynamics of Seeing – Goethe, Wittgenstein and Bortoft

I have not had much time this week to write, so thought I would jot down a few notes on where I am up to in my exploration of Ludwig Wittgenstein. Having made my way through 3/5 of Ray Monk’s Wittgenstein – The Duty of Genius, a new vista is opening up to me in terms of comprehending his philosophy. In the second part of his life he was greatly influenced by Goethe’s dynamic way of seeing, a way of seeing that can be almost impossible for intellectuals and academics to comprehend, because it is a new way of seeing which can only be experienced, and not analysed using our logical, rational and abstract minds. But this way of seeing is critical in truly comprehending the complexity of both organic systems and dynamic systems such as language, for it is only through changing our way of seeing that we can comprehend the wholeness of a system.

Goethe. Wittgenstein and Bortoft

Goethe. Wittgenstein and Bortoft

Something very magical happens when trying to understand the philosophy of another person through experiencing the phenomenon under investigation, as opposed to analysing rationally. While still seeing separate objects, you also, through a different mental faculty, perceive connections, and these are connections which are intrinsic to that system, as opposed to the connections which consist of the lines connecting boxes of General Systems Theory.

My own introduction to Wittgenstein was through Henri Bortoft, and although he wrote only two major works in his lifetime, The Wholeness of Nature: Goethe’s Way of Science and Taking Appearance Seriously: The Dynamic Way of Seeing in Goethe and European Thought, both books are so dense that it can feel as if your brain is being re-wired as you read them. The more I read, the more I experience coming into focus, and it has been a wonderful few weeks exploring Wittgenstein, of which Henri writes about in both his books.

So what is the dynamics of seeing? In The Wholeness of Nature, Henri explains as follows:

The kind of seeing which sees connections is imagination. Imagination is a kind of seeing which is also a kind of understanding (a kind of thinking). For imagination seeing and understanding are one. Hence there is no need for explanation. Seeing replaces theory – but not the same kind of seeing as that which sees separate objects. This is the kind of seeing which Goethe referred to when he remarked about himself that “my perception itself is a thinking, and my thinking a perception.”

The Wholeness of Nature, p304

This is amazing. There is a fluidity to thinking which takes time and effort to move into. It is a movement in seeing which you can not be told about. You have to ‘do philosophical work’ as Henri used to say to achieve this. This is not the same thing as studying philosophy academically, and knowing who said what. It is a gentle kind of mindfulness which connects us to the dynamic nature of life on earth, and it is a seeing which changes us as well. It is one thing to be a systems thinker, but another to experience the wholeness of a system.

I hope to complete my series on Wittgenstein soon. I just thought I would thrown in this tasty nugget from Henri in the meantime.





3 responses to “The Dynamics of Seeing – Goethe, Wittgenstein and Bortoft

  1. Hi, i just found this site as I was searching for a new book by Bortoft. Very nice writing!

    one thing you might contemplate – Rudolf Steiner (surprisingly, very much in tune with the latest neuroscience – or maybe not so surprisingly) noted that we do “emotion” or “feeling” an injustice when we oppose it to thinking. In fact, thinking is impossible without feeling. Damasio, a contemporary neuroscientist, describes in great detail how much information we gain through emotion/feeling, though a kind of information that is different from the kind we usually access through what we normally conceive of as ‘thinking” (and “conceive” is used in its original sense – to cut, to bring into being through division).

    To come back to your lovely phrase – to mindfully connect to the dynamic nature of life – it is a kind of rich, dynamic, mindful thought which is inseparable from deep, reverent “feeling” which at the same time is fully integrated with mindful sensory activity that may be among the most helpful things in this time of transition.

  2. In case you’re not aware of it, Steiner was one of Bortoft’s major inspirations. just mentioned it in case you wondered why I mentioned Steiner above.

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