Trying to Get to the Milk by Way of the Cheese Part 2

I would like to start this article with a quote from Idries Shah in his book A Perfumed Scorpion:

“It is a Sufi contention that truth is not discovered or maintained by the mere repetition of teachings. It can only be kept understood by the perpetual experience of it. And it is in the experience of truth that the Sufi’s have always reposed their trust. Sufism is not therefore “Do as I say and not as I do” or even “Do as I do”, but “Experience it and you will know”.

The knowing of course, has to be primary. Resorting to secondary renditions is all very well. But, as Rumi said, you cannot reach the milk by way of the cheese.”

This quote starts to unpack my schematic of authentic and counterfeit.


Credit: Simon Robinson

It also helps us to think more about how we experience the world and reality, and that we do so not just through intellectual thinking:

Holonomics Holonomic Operating System

Credit: Simon Robinson

In order to really unpack the meaning of the phrase “trying to get to the milk by way of the cheese” would like to explore the various ways in which Henri Bortoft referred to it in his book Taking Appearance Seriously: The Dynamic Way of Seeing in Goethe and European Thought.

In this first quote, we see reference to the metaphor of upstream and downstream. In our classes with Henri which took place while he was writing Taking Appearance Seriously, he did admit to us that he was unsure whether or not he should use these as metaphors, since they have a strong sense of a process in time and space. While he did eventually decide to stay with this imagery, it should not be taken in the Cartesian sense:

“We always begin with the phenomenon, which is already downstream. The difference is whether we then go further downstream in our search for unity, or whether we go upstream into the coming-into-being of the phenomenon. If we go upstream we discover the dynamic unity of the emerging organs, so that we now come into the phenomenon from the unity instead of trying to come to the unity from the finished phenomenon.

So we can begin to think in a Protean way that ‘creates the most varied forms by the modification of one single organ’. If we don’t recognise the difference between these two movements of thinking, then we easily fall into the error of trying to ‘reach the milk by way of the cheese’ by projecting the unity abstracted from the finished organs back into the beginning, as if this unity of the dead end were the unity of the living origin.”

This second quote builds on the first and continues to examine the way in which we think about cause and effect in relation to the form of plants:

“The specific form which an individual plant takes is neither determined by the environment nor predetermined by the organism itself. As Holdrege indicates, we must avoid the trap of thinking in a ‘finished product’ manner, as if the potential forms were there already in the organism like peas in a pod.

This is the kind of thinking which tries to ‘get to the milk by way of the cheese’, thereby eclipsing the dynamical quality of the organism be-ing itself differently according to the situation in which it is placed.”

Credit: TEDxFloripa

Credit: TEDxFloripa

In my article Customer Experiences with Soul, based on my TEDx talk of the same name from last year, I introduced the audience to this dynamic concept of the relationship between the One and the many. I also talked about the way in which British botanists in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries had fixations with measurement and categorisation. When you categorise, you look across a group of entities, and you aim to discover what is common. This quality that is common is an abstract quality, which is then used to classify a set, which is fine, but since it is abstract, if it is in relation to living organisms, you have killed off, so to speak, all that is living. This is what Henri refers to as “abstracting the unity” in this following quote:

“We can of course begin at the end by abstracting the unity of what the finished organisms have in common. As we have seen, there is nothing wrong in doing so. But we also need to keep our attention on the movement of thinking, otherwise we will make a fundamental mistake which has far-reaching consequences – which is the mistake that Owen and others made when they turned the abstract universal into a transcendent unity.

Having formed this abstract unity, which can only come at the end, we then project it back into the origin, and imagine that it is there in the phenomena, or ‘behind’ the phenomena, all the while. In other words, we assume that what is in fact a downstream abstraction is ontologically fundamental. In which case we now have to try to understand how difference could emerge from an abstract unity from which all difference has been excluded. It is impossible.

Since all difference has been excluded from this unity – in favour of what is common – then none can emerge from it. It is an ontological cul-de-sac. Yet this mistake has been made time and again. What this misses is the dynamic unity of the living source, the unity of coming-into-being, for which it substitutes the static unity of the dead end. The result is that we try to ‘reach the milk by way of the cheese,’ and so get everything the wrong way round.

Goethe’s understanding of the dynamics of being, on the other hand, goes upstream towards the unity of the living source, so that the movement of his thinking follows the coming-into-being of the phenomena and ends where we usually begin. Consequently in Goethe’s dynamical thinking of ‘the one and the many’ there is no separation of the One from the many, and the two-world dualism of pseudo-Platonism simply doesn’t arise.”

What Henri is now going to do is to show how this dynamic conception of wholeness and dynamic comprehension of the whole and the parts can also be applicable when understanding meaning in texts and spoken language. It is important here not to confuse the contents with the container. We are going to use this same movement of thinking which helped us comprehend living systems to help us understand meaning, as used in the philosophical hermeneutics of Heidegger and Gadamer.

We can see that, in the case of written texts, this is a consequence of the inevitable fact that what is said always ‘carries with it the unsaid’, which is the background context within which what is expressed means. Since what is said, therefore, does not (cannot) have a self-contained meaning, the meaning of a work can come into being differently because different conditions and circumstances will elicit different possibilities of its meaning. Thus ‘it remains the same work whose fullness of meaning is realised in the changing process of understanding’, and ‘even if it must be understood in different ways, it is still the same text presenting itself to us in these different ways’.

These variations which belong to the work itself are clearly self-differences, so that the unity here, which is the unity of coming-into-being, is the dynamical unity of self-differencing. Whereas extensively these differences can only appear as a symptom of the work falling apart into many meanings, intensively we can see that they are in fact the dynamic unity of the work itself. This is clearly indicated in the first quotation above, where these differences are said to ‘flow from it [the work] and are included in it as facets of its own disclosure’.

The sense of the language here is clearly that the differences belong to the work itself and are not ‘a mere subjective variety’ – cf. also ‘the work explicates itself … in the variety of its aspects’ and ‘it is the work itself that displays itself under various conditions’. However, we must be very careful to shift our focus ‘upstream’. Otherwise we can all too easily fall into the trap of reading what is said here in a semi-static way – ‘facets’ and ‘aspects’ can (although they need not) encourage this – and as a consequence we begin to think of ‘possibilities’ as if they were already included in the work in a ‘downstream’ manner.

Thus we think of possibilities as if they were actualities-in-waiting which have not yet emerged, but which are ready to do so when the conditions are right – which is a case of the kind of back to front thinking that ‘tries to reach the milk by way of the cheese’. Instead we need to think dynamically here, and it will help us to do so if we now return to the dynamic idea of ‘the one and the many’ that we saw in the living plant.

Hermeneutics looks to understand meaning not only in texts, but in performances as well. Hence this movement of thinking provides us with an expanded way to comprehend art, particularly performance art.

In the organic case, we saw how different environmental circumstances evoke the potential of the plant to express itself in a form which is appropriate to the specific conditions. It was emphasised that this does not mean that the environment determines the specific form which the plant takes. The plant is not passive but active in responding to the challenge of the environment, because it is a living organism and not an inert body. The conditions influence the specific form which the plant manifests, but they do not cause it externally in what would be a mechanical way. The living organism produces itself actively, instead of being conditioned passively, in response to the environment.

Thus the plant responds actively out of its own ‘potency to be otherwise’ – ‘becoming other in order to remain itself’ – to express the form of itself which the environment elicits. We can see something equivalent to this in the presentation of a work – whether it be the reading of a written text, the presentation of a play, or the performance of a piece of music. Thus, with a text, the differences in meaning which manifest in different contexts and situations are not merely subjective variations imposed on the text, but expressions of ‘the possibility of meaning’ of the work itself. But we also saw that we must guard against falling into the opposite trap by thinking of the specific form which a plant takes as if it were predetermined by the organism itself.

On this view, the different forms which are observed are already there, as if stored in the plant waiting to emerge, and when the external conditions are right the corresponding form will emerge. But this is not at all the case. On the contrary, the form which the plant takes in given circumstances is a concrete expression of the dynamic possibility of the plant, not a preformed possibility which merely comes out when circumstances permit.

In the case of a text, the equivalent of this error would be to think of the self-differences in the meaning of a work as if they were already predetermined in the text itself. But this is ‘finished product’ thinking. In any particular situation, the dynamical ‘possibility of meaning’ of the work is evoked in accordance with the conditions of that situation, but the meaning which thus comes into expression is a manifestation of the possibility of the work which is in accordance with that specific situation, and is not a preformed possibility which is already there in the text.

The difference here is between an ‘upstream’ dynamic approach, and one which is ‘downstream’ and thinks in terms of preformed possibilities which effectively ‘puts the cheese back into the milk’.

Within these extended quotes we can gain a deep sense of non-Cartesian thinking, even if the actual movement of thinking has not come fully into focus for us. I do see many business thinkers particularly make continued calls for us to break out of Cartesian thinking, but what they offer does, more often than not, appear to remain Cartesian.

As I mentioned in Part One of this series, there is every reason to continue to value analysis when discussing the benefits of synthesis. But as I also mentioned, John Boyd’s conception of problem solving does not make reference to the dynamic conception of wholeness that we discover in organic living entities and in our experience of the meaning of language, speech and performance art.

Image credit: BrewDog

Image credit: BrewDog

This is of central importance since it leads to the question of whether or not a human organisation is a living entity. I myself use the notion of livingness when discussing Customer Experiences with Soul, but in what sense am I using this? There are a number of questions I shall therefore leave for exploration in Part Three of this series.

Related Articles

Trying to Get to the Milk by Way of the Cheese Part One

Customer Experiences with Soul

2 responses to “Trying to Get to the Milk by Way of the Cheese Part 2

  1. Pingback: Trying to Get to the Milk by Way of the Cheese Part One | Transition Consciousness·

  2. Pingback: Trying to Get to the Milk by Way of the the Cheese Part 3 | Transition Consciousness·

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