The Henri Bortoft Lectures: Day Three

Edinburgh Castle. Photo: Simon Robinson

We are now half way through the publication of Henri Bortoft’s 2009 Holistic Science lectures at Schumacher College. If you have not already seen it, you may wish to read my introductory article which explains the background of context of this series of lectures: The Henri Bortoft Lectures: Introduction.

Unfortunately I do not have a video recording of the third day. While this day’s lecture may have been lost for all time, it may not have actually been recorded since the majority of this class was spent carrying out Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s original experiments on colour.

Fortunately a couple of years ago I managed to recover and publish a previous lecture by Henri on Goethean Science covering much of the material he covered in day three, and you will find the links at the end of this article. Chapters three and four of our book Holonomics takes readers through the dynamic way of seeing as taught by Henri, and also explains how to replicate many experiential exercises which Henri created for his classes.

As well as being one the greatest poets and writers of his age, Goethe considered his way of science to be his greatest achievement, much more so than his literary works such as the epic Faust. His work is greatly misunderstood, which is a shame, as when you understand Goethe’s motivation for his way of science, you can then understand that it does not necessarily contradict or replace the science of Newton.

In Taking Appearance Seriously, Henri describes the differences between Goethe and Newton’s approaches to the study of light and colour:

“Goethe’s motive was to understand the qualities of colour, and hence his science of colour is the science of these qualities as such. Newton’s motive, on the other hand was to eliminate unwanted colour in optical instruments. This is really a branch of mathematical-instrumental optics and does not require us to enter into the experience of colour.”

In a lecture from 1999 he introduces Goethe’s approach in the following manner:

Goethe recognized that this elevation of the mathematical above other qualities of nature was unwarranted in that the emphasis had no intrinsic validity. He did not seek to devalue the mathematical approach but to restore the distinction between the sciences and mathematics in situations where this distinction had become confused, thus distorting a fuller understanding of nature.

His major aim was to renew the significance of the so-called “secondary” qualities of the natural world. In his light studies, for example, he took color as a phenomenon in its own right and, by giving attention to the phenomenality of color, he sought to discover the laws of color phenomenologically. He hoped to locate the necessary connections that constitute the “inner logic” of the qualities of color (such “laws” being the equivalent in a phenomenological science of the quality of color to the mathematical laws in the quantitative science of light).

The irony is that, in returning directly to the phenomenon via firsthand, sensuous experience, Goethe was doing what many people assume science does anyway but which in fact is not done in its mathematical version.

Reference: Environmental and Architectural Phenomenology, Vol 30, No. 1, Winter/Spring 2019

There is an almost unbridgeable gap between reading about the experience of looking through a prism and actually looking through a prism. For this reason Goethe’s Theory of Colour and the insights that arise from understanding the implications, can only really come about by actually doing the experiments yourself. Fortunately we only need to acquire a children’s toy prism to be able to do this, and these can easily be purchased online.

Photo: Simon Robinson

In 1951, Heinrich  O. Proskauer first published his wonderful book The Rediscover of Color which was written to take readers step-by-step through all of Goethe’s experiments. The book came with its own small prism, and sixteen colour cards (printed on both sides) which allowed readers follow the steps that Goethe described in The Theory of Colours.

Unfortunately Proskauer’s book is no longer in print, and secondhand copies are extremely expensive. For this reason I have created these slides below which replicate the colour experiments from The Rediscovery of Color, allowing you to explore further Goethe’s theory, which we also describe in Holonomics: Business Where People and Planet Matter, along with instructions on how to use the prism.

In the two photographs below I have tried to recreate the sensation of looking through a prism (as opposed to studying light passing through a prism). On the computer screen you will see that it is divided into two parts – white on the top half and black on the bottom half.

This second photo is a close up of what is happening in the first photo. What we see are lines of colour at the boundaries between white and black. At the top we see the warm colours of red and yellow, and in the middle we see the cold colours of light and dark blue.

This is an example of Goethe’s approach to the study of colour. He did not try and explain these phenomena using mathematics or other forms of theoretical explanation. Goethe developed a sensory scientific methodology based on active seeing.

Maria and I actively work with Goethe’s theory of colour and have introduced these experiments into our MBA classes at Sustentare Business School, our Transformational Design Thinking classes at the Pontifical Catholic University of São Paulo, our Holonomics workshops and short courses, and also in our leadership programmes for business executives.

Reproduced with Permission

This set of photos comes from an executive leadership workshop Maria and I ran for a client, and we are extremely grateful to them for allowing us to publish these particular photos from the event in which we took people through these exercises, especially because they show the way in which the prisms and black and white cards need to be positioned to replicate Goethe’s original experiments.

Reproduced with permission

As you can see in the photos, small pieces of white and black card can be utilised in order to bring out the colour phenomena at the boundaries.

Reproduced with permission

By actually doing these experiments ourselves, we are able to explore our own ways of seeing. When we normally do science, the general procedure is to carry out many observations and then compare them to see what they all have in common. This is induction. Goethe’s scientific methodology requires us to use a different mode of consciousness. We do not infer, deduce, or construct a scientific theory, we are able to see the principle under observation directly.

Reproduced with Permission

Exploring colour in this way allows Maria and I in our workshops to reconnect people in business with the phenomenal world in which we inhabit but in which we often lose sight of due to the value and emphasis which is placed on our analytical way of thinking.

Henri’s teachings were less about the transmission of facts which could be easily integrated into one’s existing body of knowledge, and more about shifting the student’s mode of consciousness. This is by no means easy to grasp in the first instance, especially if one has grown up with the western scientific mechanistic paradigm – a Cartesian conception of reality.

For this reason, instead of merely discussing philosophical concepts in an academic and abstract manner, by actually doing Goethe’s colour experiments, we are able to experience the concepts in a way in which enables us to understand what is being explained at its deepest and intuitive level, thereby enabling us to truly apply the insights in our daily practices, be they in design, at work or for our personal development.

While Henri’s 2009 lecture is now lost, I went back to my lecture notes I had made at the time, and looked at the themes which Henri covered. In the late 1990s Henri gave a lecture on Goethean Science at Schumacher College, and I also had this on file. A couple of years ago I received permission to make this lecture available, and luckily Henri covers certain key concepts which are central to an understanding of the dynamic way of seeing.

Due to the length of the lecture it is in two parts. The link to the second part of the lecture is here: Henri Bortoft’s Lecture on Goethean Science Part Two

While there will of course be some repetition with the topics Henri covers in his 2009 lectures, this one is worth watching in full especially as it will help cement certain concepts hearing Henri explain them in different manner.

Suggested Readings

These references can be read to accompany this lecture:

Henri Bortoft, Understanding the Science of Colour, The Wholeness of Nature, pp191-246

Simon Robinson and Maria Moraes Robinson, Seeing, Holonomics: Business Where People and Planet Matter, pp54-71

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, Beauty, Customer Experiences with Soul: A New Era in Design, pp131-141

This video is ©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 Three

  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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