The Henri Bortoft Lectures: Day Two, Part One


I am very happy to be publishing the second of Henri Bortoft’s 2009 Schumacher lectures. If you have not already seen it, you may wish to read my introductory article which explains the background and context of this series of lectures: The Henri Bortoft Lectures: Introduction.

I have really enjoyed the many different comments from those who watched the first lecture this week and it has been really interesting to hear which points people picked up on. For example, for some, it was interesting to hear Henri really position himself in relation to General Systems Theory, and for others it was interesting hearing about David Bohm and other also the way in which this work which began in the 1970s had only just started to be incorporated into the organisational area around decade ago.

In these lectures while Henri has quite a sense of humour, this also allows him to pull no punches, and for this reason I know it will be fascinating for many of you who follow the work of David Bohm when I ask Henri about quantum physics and consciousness in the final lecture. But for now it is time to dive into Tuesday’s first lecture.

The lecture is divided into two parts. Lecture two, part one starts with Henri’s introduction to the phenomenal way of seeing and how he came to be introduced to this philosophical movement:

As Henri says in this lecture, ‘philosophical work’ (as opposed to academic discussions of philosophy) “reverses the habitual way of thinking”. Henri is drawing our attention to the way in which the world appears to us, and reveals habits in our think which when we pay attention to, can be altered and expanded, allowing us to go “upstream into the act of seeing itself”.

This discussion is central to understanding the importance of the act of distinction, for it enables us to critically explore many questions around what observation is, and what facts are.

The Modification of Clouds

As Henri explains, “the act of distinction is at the same time, analytic and holistic”. This is a very different way of understanding the way we observe, perceive and distinguish phenomena in the world, and one which the world’s of business analysis and design thinking have yet to acknowledge. Henri takes time with a very real example from the history of science, one of the greatest triumphs in science, the distinguishing of clouds.

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. Many scientists felt that it was simply not possible to classify clouds into different types. Once we go back upstream, tu use Henri’s terminology, into the act of distinction, 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.

Henri is at pains to really help us understand what Howard was actually doing in his great work of distinction. This is important in understanding the dynamic conception of wholeness, since, As Henri explains, he always had a feeling that many people who discuss ‘wholeness’ do not necessarily have such a complete understanding of this form of holistic science.

It is this incredible clarity of thinking and the incredible way that Henri had of taking us into the dynamic way of seeing that makes this series of lectures so precious and of such value for those of us who really wish to develop an expanded form of consciousness and enter into a deep understanding of non-dualistic thinking, a skill and ability which can benefit those working in fields as diverse as design, organisational redesign and ecology.

Suggested Readings

These references can be read to accompany this lecture:

Henri Bortoft, Into the Dynamic Way of Thinking, Taking Appearance Seriously, chapter 1, pp10-27

Henri Bortoft, The Organizing Idea in Cognitive Perception, The Wholeness of Nature, pp123-137

Simon Robinson and Maria Moraes Robinson, Holonomics: Business Where People and Planet Matter, pp143-155


This lectures are ©Jacqueline Bortoft and has been made available with the kind permission of both herself and Schumacher College (

One response to “The Henri Bortoft Lectures: Day Two, Part One

  1. Pingback: The Henri Bortoft Lectures: An Introduction | Transition Consciousness·

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