Guest Article: John Shotter on moving from ‘after-the-fact’ to ‘before-the fact’ thinking

I recently read John Shotter’s review of Henri Bortoft’s Taking Appearance Seriously in the International Journal of Action Research (see This is a quite exceptional book review since not only does Shotter review this amazing book, but he does so in the context of Henri’s other great work The Wholeness of Nature, therefore summarising the many great insights in a single essay. The other aspect that I found excellent in John’s review was how pragmatic it was, clearly showing how philosophical insights are of direct relevance to those involved in the design and implementation of research (and in this instance Action Research, a type of research into social and psychological issues where the researcher plays an active role in the investigation of solutions, as opposed to taking a more theoretical and detached stance).

As John writes, Henri “emphasises what it is like to have to conduct one’s investigations from within the midst of still ongoing, complicated, multi-dimensional, fluid circumstances”. This is a key skill for those who are attempting to make sense of extremely complex social situations, and therefore in studying the work of Henri, we too can learn to develop mental models and conceptions of what is happening around us.

Henri coined the term “the dynamics of seeing” to describe this fluid way of seeing, and so I am delighted that John has generously offered this article for Transition Consciousness which shows how we can benefit from learning how to move from ‘after-the-fact’ to ‘before-the fact’ thinking.

John has two different websites where he has published many more of his essays, videos and podcasts, and these are well worth your time exploring in depth:

John Shotter’s website

John Shotter’s homepage and articles

Connecting Bortoft’s ‘upstream’ and ‘downstream’ thinking with Wittgenstein’s Goethean aims in Philosophy: moving from ‘after-the-fact’ to ‘before-the fact’ thinking

John Shotter (Credit: Masaryk University)

John Shotter (Credit: Masaryk University)

Since everything lies open to view there is nothing to explain. For what is hidden, for example, is of no interest to us. One might also give the name “philosophy” to what is possible before all new discoveries and inventions. (Wittgenstein, 1953, no.126)

… we may be tempted to say ‘Only this is really seen’ when we stare at unchanging surroundings, whereas we may not at all be tempted to say this when we look about us while walking. (Wittgenstein, 1965, p.66).

Imagine rain falling on the earth, creating rivulets, flowing onto streams that flow into rivers, with the rivers, eventually, flowing into what we call ‘the sea’, with the whole circular process beginning again. Henri Bortoft (2012) used that imagining — the idea of not-yet-fully-formed upstream ‘things’ becoming more well articulated in the course of their flow downstream — as a hermeneutic, as an “organizing idea,” that is implicitly at work in him making sense, i.e., giving meaning, to what, explicitly, he does say.

(“The role of the organizing idea in cognitive perception is of such an active kind that if the idea changes, then what is seen changes. In this case what is seen is changed from within the seeing itself, and not by the addition of a further sensory factor. The new organizing idea makes it possible to see what has not been seen before. The transformation can be quite dramatic. ”Bortoft, 1996, p.142.)

Photo: Simon Robinson

Photo: Simon Robinson

There is, of course, no such separate, self-contained ‘thing’ as THE sea; we merely call the area at the lowest level, where all the waters actually collect, the sea. In possession of such an idea, we then, of course, go to talk of a ‘sea of people’, a ‘sea of words’, a ‘sea of money’, and so on. At the root of our being capable of using the same word-form within a whole range of very different circumstances seems to be a very basic, but quite amazing human ability, that we can call hermeneutical: the ability to intra-relate a large a set of separate events, occurring at different times in different places, into a holistic unity with its own unique character.

Indeed, as Henri realized, it is in the very nature of an organic world, as distinct from a mechanical one, that although everything is distinct from everything else — every leaf on a tree is different from every other leaf, every person is different from every other — nothing exists as an independent singleton, there are no ‘somethings’ which are separate from something else. The individuality entailed is not a self-contained individuality, but an oxymoronic relational-individuality or a social-individuality, an open, unfinished individuality of, in fact, a holographic kind — an analogy that Henri took from David Bohm (1980) — in which we can find, as we move around within our experience of it, an inexhaustible profusion of distinctive aspects.

What we have here, then, is a special kind of what we might call imaginative work, the gaining of an inner sense of the dynamic processes involved in the coming-into-being-of-entities — and Henri talks of it as entailing a special discipline: what Goethe called exact sensorial imagination, and what Henri (2012) calls the dynamic way of seeing, and what elsewhere (Shotter, 2011) I have called understanding from within or withness-thinking.

What I want to do here, however, is to suggest that such a process is, in one sense, not so special. We, in fact, already think in that imaginative fashion — and, without going into it in detail here (but see Monk, 1990, p.132, and Rowe, 1991), when Wittgenstein (1953) says that his aim “is to bring words back from their metaphysical to their everyday use” (no.116), he also is engaged in exactly the same Goethean endeavour as Henri. For his aim is to ‘plant’ our words back into the ‘soil’ and ‘weather world’ in relation to which they had their original function, their meaning, to wake us up to how basic this dynamic way of thinking and seeing is.

To grasp this, we need to distinguish between the thinking that we as individual, adult thinkers do deliberately, and know of ourselves to be doing, and the thinking that just happens within us (without our being aware of it as an emergent process unfolding in time) as a result of our having undergoing a particular languaged experience, or a unique experience with language. Consider, for example, the thinking that happens within us as we read/hear a question and begin to orient ourselves towards answering it; or again, our inward search for the ‘right words’ in giving expression to an experience; or our efforts at understanding the meaning of a new word used in an already familiar context; and so on. We also need to distinguish events that contribute towards our learning our first-language — events within which, so to speak, we are first ‘shown around’ the house of being (Heidegger) — and those events that merely work to articulate our familiarity with it in yet more detail.

At first in our language learning, words, utterances, cannot designate ‘things’ already well known, for the ‘things’ designated would have to seen as such independently of language, and that is clearly not the case. A word cannot at first be a ‘sign’, in the sense of pointing beyond itself to a something else. Initially, utterances must do something to us and in us immediately. As Henri (2012) puts it: “We think that we give meaning to words, whereas in the first place it is words that give meaning to us” (p.139).

Why is all this so important? Because currently, the Western world is in a mess, and everything we do seems to make it worse rather than better. Why? Because it is often assumed that we can only be rational if we reason as natural scientists reason, in terms of rules, laws, principles, logic, or some other kind of intellectual framework constituting in single, logical orders of connectedness, representing a body of unambiguous relations between separate, self-contained, countable objective entities. It is, however, becoming more and more obvious that such ‘downstream’ thinking fails to take into account the larger circumstances within which the ‘entities’ of which we speak have their being — local ecologies of every kind are being ignored.

We cannot gain the kind of dynamic understanding from within that we seek by offering theoretical or conceptual representations of an event ‘after the fact’ of its occurrence. An interpretation of it amenable to an analysis is of no use to use in our practical, everyday affairs. Analysing events after their occurrence is not how people move around within the uncertain and yet-to-be-determined circumstances of everyday life. As Wittgenstein (in Waismann, 1979) once put it: “Can only logical analysis explain what we mean by the propositions of ordinary language?” Moore is inclined to think so. Are people therefore ignorant of what they mean when they say ‘Today the sky is clearer than yesterday’? Do we have to wait for logical analysis here? What a hellish idea!” (pp. 129-130).

In organizing their fragmentary experiences into meaningful wholes, into the seeing of them as being of X or of Y kinds, they make use of ‘before the fact’ orientational sensings or feelings. Thus our task in the rhetorical structure of our writing, in line with our emphasis on the importance of embodied perception in movement, is not to present various theoretical representations of states of affairs, for theoretical representations position us as looking at something ‘over there’, retrospectively. Instead, what we require is a written portrayal that in its telling ‘moves’ us over the ‘terrain’ of the topic in question (all its relevant details) in a way sufficient for us to gain a conceptual grasp of their interconnections, and thus of their nature as a meaningful whole, even though we lack a vantage point from which to view it.

Hans-George Gadamer and Ludwig Wittgenstein

Hans-George Gadamer and Ludwig Wittgenstein

Gadamer (2000) puts the issue very nicely in saying: “The subject matter appears truly significant only when it is properly portrayed for us… We accept the fact that the subject presents different aspects of itself at different times or from different standpoints. We accept the fact that these aspects do not simply cancel one another out as research proceeds, but are like mutually exclusive conditions that exist by themselves and combine only in us” (p.284, all itals mine). To gain such a view ‘from within’ of an ‘inner world’ of our concern we must, so to speak, come to ‘live within it’, even if only vicariously, just as we must in getting to ‘know our way around’ inside our own town or city. Thus, in our taking one rather than another path of exploration, the outcome of our inquiries is not to be measured in terms of the end point of that route of exploration, but in terms of what we learn along the way in taking it — and what we learn along the way is a particular orientation towards our surroundings, a ‘way of going on’ that constitutes for us what we notice as being important for us within them. Our task, thus, is to educate the eye into ‘seeing’ various happenings out in the world as related in a certain manner to others in their surroundings, rather than that of informing the mind in how to think about them in themselves.

We need also to educate ourselves into reading slowly and carefully, for it was only the friendly words of Henri’s editor at Floris, Christopher Moore, that led me to see that Henri uses the word ‘appearance’ in his title, not ‘appearances’, for he was talking not just of ‘an’ appearance, but also of the ‘appearing of an appearance’. Careful reading, like careful listening, is in fact more difficult to do than is usually assumed… we so easily see‚ words in terms of the language habits of our everyday linguistic community.


Bohm, D. (1980) Wholeness and the Implicate Order. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
Bortoft, H. (1996). The wholeness of nature: Goethe’s way toward a scence of conscious participation in nature. Hudson, N.Y.: Lindisfarne Press.
Bortoft, H. (2012). Taking appearance seriously: The dynamic way of seeing in Goethe and European thought. Edinburgh: Floris Books.
Gadamer, H-G (2000) Truth and Method, 2nd revised edition, trans. J. Weinsheimer & D.G. Marshall. New York: Continum.
Monk, R. (1990) Ludwig Wittgenstein: the Duty of Genius. New York: Free Press.
Rowe, M.W. (1991) Goethe and Wittgenstein. Philosophy, 66(257), pp.283-303.
Shotter, J. (2011) Getting It: Withness-thinking and the Dialogical… in Practice.New York: Hampton Press.
Wittgenstein, L. (1953) Philosophical Investigations, translated by G.E.M. Anscombe. Oxford: Blackwell.
Wittgenstein, L. (1965) The Blue and the Brown Books. New York: Harper Torch Books.
Waismann, F. (1979) Witttgenstein and the Vienna Circle: Conversations recorded by Friederich Waismann, edited by B. McGuiness. Oxford: Blackwell.

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