The Henri Bortoft Lectures: Day Four, Part Two

I am very happy to be publishing the next in the series 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.

One of the most interesting points for me in this lecture is that it is possible to see that what phenomenology attempts to achieve by exploring our inward experience, “catching seeing in the act”, Goethe was attempting to “catch nature in the act”. By working with Goethe, as Henri explains, we are actually working with a philosophical tradition which is part of a very long tradition, which over time developed continually.

However, as Henri also points out immediately afterwards, this is where we all arrive at “a difficult bit”. This is the notion of ‘self-differencing’ and where we find this phenomenon in the natural world.

In order to understand self-differencing in plants for example, we cannot simply think about separate flowers in a static manner in their maturity. A key difference between a hologram and a plant is that a plant has the ability to create new forms of itself. So we can say that the plant ‘self-differences/self-relates’. Note that this is not written as self-differences and self-relates, as that would imply two separate movements.

Goethe’s dynamical way of thinking contrasts dramatically with what was called ‘archetypal anatomy’ in the nineteenth century, championed by Richard Owen (1804–1892). In this instance, the approach was to attempt to find everything that plants had in common. If we take an adult plant as our starting point, we can see how Goethe, in his movement of thinking, goes back upstream towards the coming-into-being of the plant, and this is where he finds the unity in the one organ which self-differences.

Photo: Simon Robinson

In stripping out all the differences, the movement of archetypal anatomy goes in the opposite direction from Goethe, further downstream, where nature consists of dead categories, and the dynamical living aspect of nature is entirely lost.

A phenomenological approach can help us to become more attuned to what is alive and what is living. For Henri, with his radically different way of seeing, one that is upstream and which focuses on the coming-into-being of things, modern science as we know it has no access to the livingness of organic life.

Goethe’s scientific way of thinking can be extremely difficult to grasp in the first instance due to the way in which our rational and logical minds which have been trained to work in a Cartesian manner, primarily relate only relate to solid objects. For this reason we need to be out in nature and practice Goethe’s active way of seeing, as is practiced in Holistic Science with Goethen scientists such as Margaret Colquhoun who taught us in the week immediately following Henri.

Photo: Simon Robinson

The insights from this dynamical way of thinking have huge implications, allowing us to begin to understand just why humanity can have such a propensity to be so destructive towards nature. Trapped in our logical and rational minds, all that we are able to perceive is our separateness from nature, a disconnection which arises from our being lost in our abstract and conceptual way of thinking; we have long since discarded any reverence for our sensory experiences through which we experience an intense connection to nature, not just in our thoughts, but in our hearts too.

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, The Goethean One, The Wholeness of Nature, pp247-289

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 (

2 responses to “The Henri Bortoft Lectures: Day Four, 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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