The Henri Bortoft Lectures: Day Four, Part One

As this is my final publication of 2018, may I wish each and every one of you the most happy, peaceful and rewarding new year. Thank you very much for visiting, reading, engaging, and sharing my writings, and I hope you have found them of interest, education and enjoyable.

I am very happy to be publishing the fourth 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 of context of this series of lectures: The Henri Bortoft Lectures: Introduction.

In this lecture, Henri starts by providing some biographical background of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s life. He explores the dynamic unity within nature and does this by exploring Goethe’s scientific work on the metamorphosis of plants.

Goethe saw phenomena dynamically, being able to perceive dynamical processes that reveal deep principles of organic life, which only in the last thirty years or so we have begun to be able to model, with modern computing and the mathematics of complexity theory. The value in studying Goethe is to be able, over time, to develop this same organ of perception that enables us to be far more dynamic in both our thinking and intuition.

Goethe’s thinking became the same as the movement of the growth of the plant, writing that ‘if we want to behold nature in a living way, we must follow her example and make ourselves as mobile and flexible as nature herself’. Goethe was able to perceive the deeper dynamics of the plant in its growth. One way to express this is that he was able to perceive movement in a single plant.

In this lecture Henri uses the example of a water lily to illustrate the way in which it is possible to perceive living processes in a phenomenological manner. Maria and I also used this example in Holonomics as it is so powerful:

In the water lily, there are petals, and then rings of stamens standing up. But you will notice, if you look closely, that what look like stamens seem to be an intermediate organ of part-petals and part-stamens. The overall effect is to see a movement of a single organ, gradually turning from petals into stamens.

White water lily: Republished from Holonomics: Business Where People and Planet Matter

In some flowers, you will notice that where you were expecting petals, you see stamens. What we get from this example is a sense of an underlying formative principle, which relates to an internal relationship between two different types of external organ. It is this relationship that we need to perceive in our intuition, and not the separate parts of the plant in isolation.

We should not think of this movement as one external organ transforming or metamorphosing into another organ. The leaf does not transform into the sepal. What is happening is that there appears to be one single form, which can dynamically have a number of different external forms.

Source: Holonomics: Business Where People and Planet Matter, pp96-97

In this lecture Henri uses the phrase “trying to get to the milk by way of the cheese”. This comes 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.

If you remember, in lecture one Henri discussed the way on which it was possible to understand a whole by going into the parts, as opposed to looking at everything which is common between the parts. The example he used was the creation of holographic attitude surveys in organisations. Here we find the same dynamic understanding of the relationship between the wholes and parts, and Henri’s use of the concept of going upstream.

As these lectures continue, and you continue your readings of Henri in parallel with them, you will start to develop an ability to enter in to this dynamic way of thinking. Part two of this lecture which will be published shortly will continue with this theme.

One thing which should be noted was that Henri used acetates in his lectures, and the images do not show up on the lectures. In this particular class, many of the illustrations can be found in chapter 3 of Taking Appearance Seriously.

Suggested Readings

These references can be read to accompany this lecture:

Henri Bortoft, Goethe and the Dynamic Unity of Nature, Taking Appearance Seriously, chapter 3, pp62-89

Henri Bortoft, Goethe’s Organic Vision, The Wholeness of Nature, pp77-107

Simon Robinson and Maria Moraes Robinson, Goethe’s Way of Seeing, Holonomics: Business Where People and Planet Matter, chapter 4, pp72-107

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These 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 Four, Part One

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

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