An Instance Worth a Thousand Bearing All Within Itself

Photo: Simon Robinson

Photo: Simon Robinson

In a recent article I asked the question “What is a Phenomenon?” In asking this question, I did so via a look at the ways in which Goethe and Newton approached the study of light and colour. In my last article, we then went into the phenomena by examining systems thinking and holonomic thinking – The Systems View of Life: Part Two – Into the Phenomenon. It may help you to read these two articles first, before we see if we ourselves can find an instance worth a thousand bearing all within itself.

Werner Heisenberg. Source: Wikipedia

Werner Heisenberg. Source: Wikipedia

Almost every scientific advance is bought at the cost of renunciation, almost every gain in knowledge sacrifices important standpoints and established modes of thought. As facts and knowledge accumulate, the claim of the scientist to an understanding of the world in a certain sense diminishes.’ Our justifiable admiration for the success with which the unending multiplicity of natural occurrences on earth and in the stars has been reduced to so simple a scheme of laws – Heisenberg implies – must therefore not make us forget that these attainments are bought at the price ‘of renouncing the aim of bringing the phenomena of nature to our thinking in an immediate and living way.

This quote above comes from Wener Heisenger, who speaking in 1932, the 100th anniversary of the death of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, draws our attention to the manner in which modern science continually reduces the essence of both humanity and the livingness in life. The quote can be found in Man and Matter, first published in 1951 by Ernest Lehrs, who discusses the science of Goethe from an Anthroposophical perspective (i.e. from the perspective of the philosophy of Rudolf Steiner.

In his opening remarks about his book, Lehrs wrote about one of the greatest questions that had plagued him since a young age:

Everywhere I saw an abyss widening between human knowing and human action. How often was I not bitterly disillusioned by the behaviour of men for whose ability to think through the most complicated scientific questions I had the utmost admiration!

On all sides I found this same bewildering gulf between scientific achievement and the way men conducted their own lives and influenced the lives of others. I was forced to the conclusion that human thinking, at any rate in its modern form, was either powerless to govern human actions, or at least unable to direct them towards right ends. In fact, where scientific thinking had done most to change the practical relations of human life, as in the mechanization of economic production, conditions had arisen which made it more difficult, not less, for men to live in a way worthy of man.

At a time when humanity was equipped as never before to investigate the order of the universe, and had achieved triumphs of design in mechanical constructions, human life was falling into ever wilder chaos. Why was this?

It seems the situation today is still the same as it was in the middle of the last century. Otto Scharmer is here in Brazil on a tour presenting his new book, cowritten with Katrin Kaufer, Leading From The Emerging Future: From Ego System to Eco-System Economies. In many spiritual paths, we find the lesson that the more you can quieten your mind, the more you can ‘see’, and this is absolutely right. But there is also a dynamic way of seeing where we are conscious of how we are actively playing a role in the construction of our worlds, and if we are not aware of how we are doing this, and what leads us towards the explanations we tell ourselves about the phenomena in the world (and of course our thoughts, feelings, reactions, responses and projections of other people), then we can miss so much in our experiences of being human. Our fractured and unmindful way of thinking leads us into a blurred vision of reality.

The central thesis of Man and Matter centres around this devastatingly potent quote from Goethe:

In the range of phenomena all had equal value in Bacon’s eyes. For although he himself always points out that one should collect the particulars only to select from them and to arrange them, in order finally to attain to Universals, yet too much privilege is granted to the single facts; and before it becomes possible to attain to simplification and conclusion by means of induction (the very way he recommends), life vanishes and forces get exhausted. He who cannot realize that one instance is often worth a thousand, bearing all within itself; he who proves unable to comprehend and esteem what we called ur-phenomena, will never be in a position to advance anything, either to his own or to others’ joy and profit.

“An instance worth a thousand bearing all within itself” – this is a very key concept for Goethe. It shows that Goethe’s way of proceeding is phenomenological and not just empirical. One the clearest examples is his work on colour (as I have already written about in my article “What is a Phenomenon?“). An empirical procedure would just collect many different instances of colour phenomena and try to abstract what they had in common by comparing them. And the presence of what they had in common would be taken to be essential for the phenomenon to occur. This is a procedure of induction, or generalisation from many cases.

Goethe says that the essential thing can be seen in one instance if you can find it. It is worth a thousand instances. It has to be an instance which “bears all within itself”. It is therefore a special instance. We see this also in the philosophy of Heidegger, who said “the idea belonging to the phenomenon, is unfolded from within the phenomenon itself according to the manner of its being, instead of being imposed upon it”.

Goethe sees the idea in this one particular case. It does not necessary happen clearly, and it could be hard to find, with contingent and accidental factors which obscure which is essential. What is needed is an instance where all these secondary phenomena are reduced, so the primary phenomenon can be seen. Goethe learnt to see the coming-into-being in the colours themselves. He sees the fundamental idea, it appears in the phenomenon itself.

It may be useful to provide an actual example, and the one I have chosen is NASA’s famous moonrise:

Credit: NASA

Credit: NASA

We see a large blue strip across the horizon. Are you able to explain why? If we follow the Newtonian explanation that “white light” (which actually has no colour and is not “white”) is made up of the colours of the spectrum, then we end up with an explanation that the blue light we see is refracted through the atmosphere. If we follow Goethe, we do not think in terms of different coloured light. That blue you are seeing is actually the darkness behind it, which has become a lighter colour because the atmosphere is “lightening” the darkness. This is what Goethe called a primary phenomenon. This is not systems thinking per se, but it is a way of understanding a phenomenon as a whole, it is a way of seeing where we are able to see the very idea itself, the coming-into-being of colour without recourse to adding anything extra, such as the theory of coloured light.

These teachings on Goethe have come to me via the work of Henri Bortoft and also Philip Franses, teacher of complexity and holistic science at Schumacher College. In one of his Schumacher College lectures, Henri said:

The relationship between the universal and the particular is somewhat different for Goethe, he turns it inside out. We see the universal shining through the particular, The particular is seen “universally”. In the usual relationship it is not like this at, because the particular is just seen as an instance of the universal. For example triangles.

When you draw a triangle, the triangle is just seen as an instance of the universal triangle. You don’t have this experience that with one triangle, you see the essence of triangularity shining through it. You may come to this later. What you do is you see each triangle simply as an instance of the universal.

But with Goethe, we come to the universal through the particular. In the other way we lose the particular.  Goethe is working in a poetic way.

Though the contemplation of poetry, we can begin to develop an understanding of the difference between allegory and what Goethe called “true poetry”. His observation on the difference is worth reading slowly so that you really grasp what Goethe is teaching us:

There is a great difference between a poet seeking the particular for the universal, and seeing the universal in the particular. The one gives rise to Allegory, where the particular serves only as instance or example of the general; but the other is the true nature of Poetry, namely, the expression of the particular without any thought of, or reference to, the general. If a man grasps the particular vividly, he also grasps the general, without being aware of it at the time; or he may make the discovery long afterwards.

So for example, imagine you read a poem about an encounter between a man and a woman. But actually, the poem is not just about that particular man and woman, which of course it is, but, as Henri explained, “it is about that particular encounter between a man and a woman raised to the universal, because something universal shines through the particular case. The particular case is what it is, but it is illuminated by the universal which it illuminates.”

As Henri further elucidated “With allegory, the universal and particular are separate, there is the particular and the universal, the particular is used simply to illustrate the universal. You already have the universal. It is not that you are seeing the universal through the particular, and so that the particular is seen as an instance of the universal. You are just using it. It is quite dull. Allegory was used a great deal in poetry, such as Spencer’s Fairy Queen. It is allegory all the way through. As an intellectual exercise, it may be interesting to look at what each thing represents, but poetically it is extremely dull.”

Another example comes not from poetry, but from Shakespeare. Phenomenologist Erazim Kohak in Idea and Experience: Edmund Husserl’s Project of Phenomenology in “Ideas I” talks about jealousy, saying that “Jealousy has a logic of its own which we can grasp.” When we do grasp this, we see it, we do not infer it. We don’t deduce it, we do not speculate. We can see jealousy directly. In many cases of jealousy, there will be a myriad of factors which will not be important. You want to find “an instance worth a thousand bearing all” and Kohak finds this in Othello:

An empirical report of the observed behaviour of the commanding officer of the Venetian armed forces, his wife and his chief of staff would yield a cumbersome mass a trivia about the life of military officers and their dependents. Shakepear’s fictional account of Othello cuts through all of that presenting the pure eidos of the complex phenomenon jealousy.

Othello is an instance in a thousand bearing all within itself. The fact that it is present in the imaginative mode of consciousness instead of in the perceptual mode of consciousness, as actual experience, doesn’t make any difference to its phenomenological function. If you were to try to find out what jealousy is in an empirical manner, you would just simply get bogged down in the irrelevant details of people’s lives.

We now need to return to Goethe’s quote, in which he discusses the scientific method of Francis Bacon. Bacon has always been famous of course because it is said he advocated the method of induction. You find many different cases and try to generalise from them. It was generally supposed that this was how scientific work was done. As a great teacher of the history of science, Henri pointed out that Bacon never said science worked in this way and that he did not advocate the methods for which he is universally credited. He does include induction in his writings, but he says you wont get very far.

I managed to find this quote in a footnote in the book Francis Bacon By Perez Zagorin:

The indiction of which the logicians speak, which proceeds by simple enumeration, is a purile thing and leads to no result.

This is quite remarkable. In Bacon’s writing it is clear that he did not give all phenomena equal value. Bacon, in Novum Organum, singled out certain instances which are especially instructive. He emphasises what he calls “the shining instances” or “the striking instances”:

Among Prerogative Instances I will put in the third place Striking Instances, of which I have made mention in the First Vintage Concerning Heat, and which I also call Shining Instances, or Instances Freed and Predominant. They are those which exhibit the nature in question naked and standing by itself, and also in its exaltation or highest degree of power; as being disenthralled and freed from all impediments, or at any rate by virtue of its strength dominant over, suppressing and coercing them.

Henri saw this as clearly being the same idea as “an instance worth a thousand bearing all within itself” from which all secondary factors have fallen away. Henri felt that Goethe had managed to do what Bacon wanted to do but couldn’t do, pointing out that if something shines, what does it do? It shines, it appears. In Henri’s words “the idea appears in the phenomenon.”

HolonomicsWhen we plunge in to the search for an instance worth a thousand bearing all within itself, we discover that we can either retract into our minds, cogitating and contemplating abstract theory, and that is fine. There is nothing wrong with this so long as we are aware we are doing it.

But there is also a time to plunge into the sensory world, the world we inhabit, and this is a world where we can discover a dynamic and previously hidden wholeness. This is the glory that is the experience of being human on this planet. These are crazy times, and believe me things are getting pretty crazy in Brazil in the run up to the world cup, but if we can drop our egos, maybe we can begin to see more, understand more, and know that this world, and our lives, they truly are phenomenal.


Related Articles

What is a Phenomenon?

The Systems View of Life: Part Two – Into the Phenomenon.

3 responses to “An Instance Worth a Thousand Bearing All Within Itself

  1. It’s an interesting question what Goethe really meant by ‘an instance in a thousand, bearing all within itself’ as the implication of the Goethean approach is that all instances bear all within themselves. In one way it seems to echo his search for the ur pflanze, the archetypal plant, which he initially believed would be an actual plant species. As we know, his revelation in the Botanical Gardens in Naples showed him the archetypal plant – and also that it could never be an actual plant, precisely because it bore the potentiality ‘to be’ of ever plant within itself.

    In the case of his researches in colour, the ‘instance in a thousand…’ seems to mean a natural phenomenon in which the principles of the ‘deeds and suffering of light and darkness’ are most clearly, and unambiguously, expressed. And, of course, he found this in the changing colours of sun and sky between sunrise/sunset and midday. However what Henri says about the relationship of the universal and the particular – and how it is reversed in Goethe’s approach – means that every part must, in its very nature, be an expression of the whole.

    The ‘instance in a thousand…’ is thus not about the nature of the phenomenon per se, but about the nature of understanding and the qualities of a particular phenomenon which make it easier for us to recognize in it the coming into being of the universal. Nonetheless it is noteworthy that Goethe goes on to develop what he calls (as I recall, in the Farbenlehre) a ‘synoptic’ approach, putting together a whole series of related experiments which allow us to develop a more comprehensive understanding of the wholeness of the phenomenon and contrasting this with Newton’s derivation of a colour theory from a single experiment. This approach, too, seems to have been favoured by Goethean scientists (one can think, for instance, of Jochen Bockemühl synoptic presentations of different leaves from the same plant).

    Perhaps we could thus describe the ‘instance in a thousand’ as a particular phenomenon which seems to epitomize the comprehensive understanding we develop from a synoptic approach? That is, the instance in which we can see expressed most clearly the whole coming to presence which we may have glimpsed, in a more fragmentary way, in each of other instances we have brought together to investigate the phenomenon.

    If we want an example from the world of business, we could look at the current interest in collecting stories of people’s experience as a way of approaching an issue phenomenologically. Every story, by its very nature, is a way in which the whole of the phenomenon – indeed, the whole of the organization – comes to presence. But it is very often the case that one story stands out emblematically, becoming the ‘instance in a thousand, bearing all within itself’. It may stand out immediately, but we only know that it ‘bears all within itself’ by reference to all the other stories we have heard. (This is where Newton went wrong, in Goethe’s mind, having settled upon the experience of the ‘splitting’ of light through the prism as the fundamental phenomenon, without first exploring the related phenomenon – such as the ‘spectrum of darkness’ – which would have shown the partiality of this example. It was a false – counterfeit – ‘instance in a thousand…’ because it only bore part within itself.)

  2. Pingback: What is a phenomenon? | Transition Consciousness·

  3. Pingback: Henri Bortoft’s Lecture on Goethean Science | Transition Consciousness·

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