The Henri Bortoft Lectures: Day Two, Part Two

You have to do science consciously, and that means being aware of what you are doing.

Henri Borfoft

I am very happy to be publishing the third 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.

In the opening section of part two, Henri returns to his discussion of systems thinking and how we normally think of parts in a system, and how they are connected. Henri also touches on the work of Ken Wilbur and integral theory.

His opening comments provide an exceptional summary of the critical notion of ‘belonging together’. This phrase can have either the emphasis on the belonging, where the belonging determines the fact that things are together, or alternatively, the emphasis can be on the together, where things have been placed together artificially, hence they have been “togethered”.

In listening to this opening section you will really hear the way in which it is important to hear Henri, how he speaks, and how he clarifies these terms which could be missed in just a reading. Here Henri is critiquing General Systems Theory, which involves the activity of creating diagrams with lines and boxes, which once drawn, allow people to then declare they have a ‘whole’. But when we develop this form of holistic consciousness, we are able to observe a quality of ‘belonging together’, where phenomena already have “a more subtle way of belonging together” before we have tried to together them using our own frameworks which are alien to them.

The notion of belonging together comes from Heidegger, and in this lecture Henri reads a quote from Heidegger’s Being and Time, a book whose language is extremely difficult to penetrate. Henri explains with a rare clarity:

“Conceptuality, the ideas that you develop, can actually belong to the being itself, which will be unfolded in those concepts. So you can find a form of thinking which is appropriate to the being itself, or you can try and force that phenomenon into concepts, which you have brought and which are alien to its own nature.”

Having taken us through this, Henri then shows his characteristic modesty, when a discussion follows from a question exploring other ways of understanding belonging together. Henri really applied this thinking in a management context, where he felt that consultants and systems thinkers with their tools and questionnaires “obliterated” the more subtle approach. However, the discussion we had with Henri is important in that it reminds us not to become stuck in the belonging in order that emergence is not blocked in creating new systems and new connections.

During this discussing Henri explained that:

What comes across is that it is not a ‘dogmatic annunciation’. This is what you get in systems thinking – ‘dogmatic annunciation’. What you are working with is what I would call a ‘constructive conception’. The idea of a constructive conception is that it is not the truth. A dogmatic annunciation says it is the truth. A constructive conception has in it sufficient truth for it to be useful to take you on [forward].

Holonomics: Business Where People and Planet Matter, p152

Because this new way of thinking about the dynamic interplay between the two forms of belonging together had never previously been discussed in systems thinking (as far as I was aware of), for this reason Maria and I chose to cite this part of the discussion in depth in Holonomics: Business Where People and Planet Matter, a book written as an introduction to the dynamic conception of wholeness and as a guide into developing an expanded form of consciousness and a deeper understanding of systems thinking.

This discussion is then followed by Henri’s concept of the ‘organising idea’. This is necessary for us to understand why sometimes what we think of as an idea is, for Henri, misunderstood. Henri illustrates his argument with an analysis of the necker cube and the famous duck/rabbit drawing:

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.

In a previous article I mentioned the way in which Henri used language to take us into the movement of thinking. This is an excellent example of this whereby ‘difference’ is being used as a verb.

As well as differencing, simultaneously, we also relate them. So, just as the figure above is duck/rabbit, we have to understand the act of distinction as a singular movement of differencing/relating.

Another key insight of phenomenology which Henri always emphasised 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.

To also help us understand what he means by movement of thinking, Henri cites the philosopher Franz Brentano (1838 – 1917):

By idea, I mean the act of conceiving, not that which is conceived.

This day’s lecture ends with Henri referencing M.L.J. Abercrombie’s book The Anatomy of Judgement: An Investigation into the Processes of Perception and Reasoning which was first published in 1960. I have written an article about this book which you can read here: Book Review: The Anatomy of Judgement

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, Making the Phenomenon Visible, The Wholeness of Nature, pp36-76

Simon Robinson and Maria Moraes Robinson, Goethe’s Way of Seeing, Holonomics: Business Where People and Planet Matter, pp72-107

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

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

2 responses to “The Henri Bortoft Lectures: Day Two, Part Two

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

  2. Pingback: Deepening our Approach to Customer Experience Design – Customer Experiences with Soul·

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