The Henri Bortoft Lectures: Day Four, Part Three

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.

Each day Henri would normally lecture only in the morning, once before elevenses and once afterwards. The lectures were extremely demanding and quite understandably he felt he could not provide the focus necessary for further afternoon sessions.

This year, due to the immense involvement we were all experiencing in his teachings, we asked him to speak in the afternoon on his fourth day. I know that in the year afterwards that Henri would come to feel that he was not at his best. However, this supplementary lecture is still of value, especially due to the thoughts which Henri shared on the dynamical way of thinking of Darwin, the way in which Darwin came to understand the continual process of change in life, and also the way in which Darwin then sought ways to explain these processes using extrinsic theory.

Darwin came to his realisation that change in nature was continuous only after eight years studying barnacles. The quote below comes from Taking Appearance Seriously:

Before he did his work with barnacles, Darwin had believed that variation is the exception in nature, occurring only in times of crisis. His barnacle work changed that. Here he found that there are no unvarying forms, and that barnacle species are, as he put it, ‘eminently variable’. What made the work of classification so difficult was that ‘Every part “of every species” was prone to change; the closer he looked, the more stability seemed an illusion’. Barnacles, he told Hooker, are infinitely variable; and in the context of his theory of what he called ‘the transmutation of species’, he went further to see variations as incipient species.

Charles Darwin's sketches of barnacles

Charles Darwin’s sketches of barnacles

There is a switch in gestalt here, like the reversing cube: in one perspective the phenomenon appears as the variations of a species, whereas in another perspective the very same phenomenon appears as the initial stages of new species. Goethe and Darwin both encountered the organism’s ‘potency to be otherwise’ which is the self-differencing dynamic of life. But whereas Goethe saw this unceasing variation phenomenologically, so that he understood it as the expression of life itself, Darwin wanted to explain it (in this regard he thought more like a physicist). He eventually ‘found’ an explanation in the key to the success of Victorian capitalism: the division of labour.

The conversation is wide-ranging and allowed Henri to discuss further aspects of Goethe’s theory of plants, including Goethe’s writings from Italian Journey. In his diaries it is possible to see how Goethe is consciously and mindfully starting his observations in the sensory realm. Here he describes his thoughts having visited Sicily:

My old habit of sticking to the objective and concrete has given me an ability to read things at sight, so to speak, and I am happy to think that I now carry in my soul a picture of Sicily, that unique and beautiful island, which is clear, authentic and complete.

Goethe uses these same powers of observation to observe the dynamic processes found in nature. It is on his Italian journey that he develops what will become his theory of the metamorphosis of plants, a theory which although will be ignored by the majority of scientists and philosophers, will nonetheless inspire Charles Darwin in the following decades:

I am on the way to establishing important new relations and discovering the manner in which Nature, with incomparable power, develops the greatest complexity from the simple.

We hear less from Goethe in terms of how he develops his insights on the metamorphosis of plants, but as he continues on his travels, his way of seeing deepens profoundly. It is clear how much the nature Goethe finds in Italy inspired him:

What I have always said has been confirmed: there are certain natural phenomena and certain confused ideas which can be understood and straightened out only in this country.

What I have discovered is the pleasure in discovering the context in which well-known quotes are written. For example, one of Goethe’s great insights comes to him as he takes a pleasant evening walk:

Suddenly I had a flash of insight concerning my botanical ideas. Please tell Herder that I am very near to discovering the secret of the Primal Plant. I am only afraid that no one will recognise it in the rest of the plant world. My famous theory about the cotyledons has now been so elaborated that it would be difficult to take it any further.

What Goethe is attempting to do is to understand the dynamics of the plant in itself, without recourse to an intellectual framework or theory. He is moving from concrete observation directly to intuitive insight, hence his concern that his dynamical notion of the plant will not be understood.

In this lecture there are various questions from a number of us, all of whom were battling to develop this expanded form of consciousness that this form of thinking demands. As a psychologist trained in the traditional scientific methodology, you will hear my own struggles as I contemplate the nature of scientific explanation, trying to determine if a phenomenological approach to science can only stay in in the what, or if it can answer how and why. This of course is the start of an extremely deep exploration of causation, mechanical explanation and our way of thinking about causation.

The lecture continues with many important observations on Plato, the two-world theory, psudo-Platonism and the Platonic studies of Hans Georg-Gadamer.

Overall, while perhaps at the time we may should not have asked Henri to offer this additional lecture, given that this was the only time his week of lectures at Schumacher College were recorded on video, and given that his final series of lectures was in 2012, this offers a precious record this offers a precious record of what was more of a conversation with us, and for this I am truly grateful to Henri for offering to spend this additional time with us.

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, Authentic and Counterfeit Wholes, The Wholeness of Nature, pp22-26

Simon Robinson and Maria Moraes Robinson, The Elements of Being, Customer Experiences with Soul: A New Era in Design, pp111-118

Simon Robinson and Maria Moraes Robinson, Wholeness in Lived Experience, Customer Experiences with Soul: A New Era in Design, pp163-167

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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 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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