How we can discover wholeness by going into the act of seeing

Photo: Simon Robinson

I have seen a number of extremely interesting discussions recently on LinkedIn and Facebook recently which explore the way in which we has humans make distinctions between ourselves and others. For example, in The Ecology of Systems Thinking Facebook group, David Braden wrote that:

“I find the most significance when I make two distinctions and follow the patterns of interactions among those. The first distinction we all make is the the distinction between ourselves as organisms and pattern of interactions in which we find ourselves. From this point of view the pattern present opportunities and threats and we name these things good and bad (evil).

The second distinction is between the pattern of living things on this planet and the context of material and energetic flows in which it finds itself. Yes, we are also connected to the flow of materials and energy but is the function of the living system on this planet that must continue if the existence of humans on this planet is to continue into the future.”

I therefore thought that it would be interesting to publish an extract from our book Holonomics: Business Where People and Planet Matter which explores the act of distinction in more detail. When we are able to go ‘upstream’ (as Henri Bortoft put it) into the act of seeing itself, we discover that instead of two distinctly different actions of differentiating and relating, there is one singular act of differencing/relating.

This insight is important as when we reflect on it, and develop this quite different way of seeing that that which we are normally used to, we discover how in our normal day-to-day modes of cognition we miss this wholeness. Many acts of violence, destruction and separation today can be thought of as a result of failing to have empathy with others, and of failing to see how we fully relate to others, rather than just focusing on our differences.

For this reason I thought that it would be interesting to share this extract in the name of furthering our sense of unity in these difficult times.

The Act of Distinction

Having examined the act of ‘seeing’, we now need to consider the act of ‘distinction’. This is critical in order to understand how thinking phenomenologically allows us to overcome seemingly paradoxical concepts. Just as we did with the act of seeing, we also have to direct our attention upstream into the act of distinction, and not get distracted by the outcome, the objects which have been distinguished.

Our common way of thinking about distinction is that it is a way in which we are able to perceive separate objects. In this way, everything about the way we think directs us downstream. It takes effort for us to direct our attention upstream into the act of distinction, but we can use certain illustrations to help us.

Duck/Rabbit – from Holonomics: Business Where People and Planet Matter (2014)

The ambiguous drawing above can be seen either as a duck or a rabbit. The duck is looking to the left, and the rabbit is looking to the right, and we can switch between seeing the two different meanings. However, if we think about the figure itself, it is not duck and rabbit – it is duck/rabbit. The reason we can say this is that the duck is the rabbit and the rabbit is the duck. It is not partly duck and partly rabbit. The key here is that the figure is simultaneously both duck and rabbit.

How does this relate to the act of distinction? We must not confuse the act of distinction with separation. If we go upstream into the act of distinction, we discover that there are two simultaneous movements. On the one hand, when we distinguish between two entities ‘a’ and ‘b’, we difference them (‘difference’ here being used as a verb). And, simultaneously, we also relate them. So, just as the figure above is duck/rabbit, we have to understand the act of distinction as differencing/relating.

Another key insight of phenomenology is that ‘lived experience’ is intrinsically holistic. How can this be? Well, we have to stay focused on the act of distinguishing, and not on the objects that have been distinguished. Within the act of distinction, although there are two movements of thinking – differencing and relating – it is one single act of distinction, and therefore we can say that the act of distinction is a single whole, which although containing two movements of thinking, are related intrinsically, thus preserving the wholeness.

If this point is understood, then it can be seen that the act of distinction is intrinsically holistic, a statement which at first sight seems to be entirely paradoxical, since the way we normally think about distinction is that it is fundamentally reductionist. It is only paradoxical if we lose sight of the act of distinguishing. Therefore, we could also say that lived experience is intrinsically holistic too, since being upstream, it deals with the ‘coming-into-being’ of objects, and not the objects after they have been distinguished, where the only aspect that can be perceived is the separation.

While this may still seem abstract, some concrete and real examples will help to explain why it is important to understand this concept. The examples that Henri Bortoft uses come from the history of science, and we will follow these with our more mundane example, so as to show how common this facet of seeing really is.

Seeing involves something that is non-sensory, – the organising idea. This may sound as if it is a thing, perhaps a static representation in the brain, but it is not. It should be thought of as a processing or organising within the act of seeing.

Image: From ‘Researches about Atmospheric Phaenomena’, Thomas Forster(1815)

This should become much clearer when we consider our first example, one of the greatest triumphs in science, the distinguishing of clouds. If we look at the sky nowadays, we can see a number of types of cloud, and it may be the case that we wonder what the great accomplishment was, simply putting labels on the clouds. But before 1803, when Luke Howard published his seminal paper On the Modification of Clouds, many of the world’s greatest thinkers had already tried to classify the clouds to no avail. It was as if they were seeing what we first see in the picture of the giraffe – just a meaningless jumble of shapes. Many scientists felt that it was simply not possible to classify clouds into different types. Once we go back upstream, before the clouds were first distinguished, we can better appreciate just what an achievement it was.

Howard was not just giving labels to different objects. He spent many years observing clouds, and not only was he able to distinguish the three main types – cirrus, stratus, and cumulus – he was also able to distinguish, and thus describe, their inner order and dynamics, which led to their modification of one type into another, based on changing atmospheric conditions. Howard did not classify clouds based on secondary characteristics; his discovery was a unitary act of differencing/relating, in which the different cloud types are at the same time both different from each other and dynamically related to one another.

The next example comes from psychiatrist Oliver Sacks. In his book The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat, Sacks discusses the work of neurologist Guillaume-Benjamin Duchenne (1806–1875), who, in the 1850s, was the first person to describe the disease muscular dystrophy. By 1860, after Duchenne’s original description, many hundreds of cases had been recognised and described, so much so that his student Jean-Martin Charcot said, ‘How come that a disease so common, so widespread, and so recognisable at a glance – a disease which has doubtless always existed – how come that it is only recognised now? Why did we need M. Duchenne to open our eyes?’

We can think of ‘describing’ as the act of distinction. However, there is more to this phenomenon than simply people suddenly noticing something that had not previously come to their attention. Did Duchenne discover muscular dystrophy? Or can we say that in some way he created it? Or was the act of distinguishing/relating in some mixture of both of these things? This is an important question, as we can now begin to appreciate the concept of ‘being’ in phenomenology.

Iain McGilchrist has an interesting way of describing the mixture of objectivity and subjectivity by saying:

We neither discover an objective reality nor invent a subjective reality, but that there is a process of responsive evocation, the world ‘calling forth’ something in me that in turn ‘calls forth’ something in the world.

When something appears, we normally think of the object as existing fully before anyone describes it. Heidegger talked about things being freed in order to be, and Henri describes the act of distinguishing as ‘releasing things into being’.


Extract taken from Holonomics: Business Where People and Planet Matter, Simon Robinson and Maria Moraes Robinson (2014) Floris Books

Simon Robinson is the co-founder of Holonomics Education, a strategy and innovation consultancy based in São Paulo whose mission is to help organisations to implement great customer experiences, powerful and effective strategies, and develop purposeful, meaningful and sustainable brands. He is the co-author of Customer Experiences with Soul: A New Era in Design and his research examines how the dynamic conception of wholeness in hermeneutics and phenomenology can deepen our thinking on innovation, customer experience design and the circular economy.

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