Henri Bortoft’s 2010 Schumacher College lectures

“Taking Appearance Seriously is a rare philosophical work of both outstanding quality and immense practicality, written to guide the reader into really experiencing what Henri Bortoft calls the dynamic way of seeing: a radically aware way of thinking and comprehending our complex world which is as applicable in the creative arts and business world as it is in science.”

Simon Robinson

Many of you will have seen that last year I published the complete set of Henri Bortoft’s 2009 lectures from Schumacher College. In order not to repeat myself too much, you may wish to read my introduction to this series. I also published a final article which explored how Maria and I are putting Henri’s philosophy and teachings into practice, in various organisational contexts such as cultural transformation, innovation, change management and customer experience design.

I am therefore extremely happy to be able to announce the publication of Henri’s 2010 lectures at Schumacher College. These were recorded in audio format only, and for this reason the sound quality is far higher than the video recordings of the previous year. What I plan to do is to add each lecture to this post as they are published over the coming weeks. As I have already published extensive lecture notes for each of Henri’s 2009 lectures, I will avoid repetition by writing brief lecture notes in the lecture descriptions on Youtube.

Lecture One: Monday

In this opening lecture Henri Bortoft explores the origin and meaning of holistic science. He then discusses the role of phenomenology and lived experience in understanding the dynamic conception of wholeness.

Lecture Two: Tuesday

In this lecture Henri Bortoft discusses the origins of understanding organisations from a holographic perspective.

This way of thinking about wholeness in organisations sees everyone in the organisation as being in some sense a partial expression of the whole organisation.

In the 1960s Henri and his colleagues saw that hermeneutics could provide an alternative approach to systems theory, developing a theory of hermeneutics of the organisation.

Henri builds on this exploration by then introducing phenomenology, which then progresses into an explanation of the dynamical way of seeing:

“Human subjectivity has a much deeper significance, it is the place where the world appears. That is what human subjectivity is, where the world appears. We imagine that the world appears without us. We discover neither an objective reality nor invent invent a subject reality, but there is a process of responsive evocation. ‘The world calling forth something in me that in turn calls forth something in the world. So there is something in the world which calls forth something in me, and that calls forth that in the world which is calling in forth something in me’.”

In part two Henri describes the act of distinction in relation to how we see and construct the world. He does this by taking us “upstream” into the act of seeing itself.

Human subjectivity has a much deeper significance, in that it is the place where the world appears. Normally though we imagine that the world appears without us.

“We discover neither an objective reality nor invent invent a subject reality, but there is a process of responsive evocation. The world calling forth something in me that in turn calls forth something in the world.”

As Henri explains, normally we start with an account of ‘what is distinguished’. This misleads us, because what we have to do is go back upstream into the act of distinguishing of what is distinguished. Otherwise we will tell a story of the end product, and we will back-project, something which is often found in much of philosophy.

‘Phenomenology is not a form of introspection, or based on introspection. This is a subtle shift. There is a subtle shift of experience within experience in itself. The ‘what is seen’ is still there, but the shift is into the seeing of what is seen, and the whole is there.”

Lecture Three: Wednesday

In this lecture Henri discusses how we can we catch the act of seeing in the act? Traditional representational theories of perception which formed in the 17th century with the Lockian and Cartesian view of reality take us away from the act of seeing. Lock brought in the sense of ideas. Lock starts with this empirical attitude where you start with the physical objects.

We have to shift the position of attention within experience, something which is hard to do. We can then understand the nature of what is seen, and this does not draw us into the story that what we perceive is the images coming into us. To explore the act of seeing we have to go into “lived experience”.

To do so this we have to interrupt the normal process of perception. Henri does this by exploring various ambiguous figures, all of which can be found in our book Holonomics: Business Where People and Planet Matter. As Henri explains:

“Wittgenstein said that you do not see physical objects which are knives and forks. What you see are knives and forks. But normally we separate meaning from the experience, as if we add meaning on to what we experience directly. He said that we do not see objects plus meaning.

Meaning is not an add-on. We do not see these as objects to which we add the meaning knife and fork. We see knife and fork directly. Seeing is not ‘seeing as’. We do not see something as something, we see it directly. The experience is holistic, in that the visual experience and the meaning is one whole. This reflects what we now know about the brain. But then soon after the sensory and meaning separates, and this is the re-presentation of the experience. The experience was originally a unitary experience, which was one whole. But then a fraction after it is re-presented in the brain and so it looks as if the meaning is added on. We do not intellectually add on meaning to what we see. But seconds afterwards we swear blind that this is what we did.”

Henri ends this lecture with reference to Emma Kidd’s dissertation on the dynamic way of seeing. You can download a copy via the link in this article: Guest Article: Emma Kidd – Re-Cognizing the Nature of Wholeness and the Wholeness of Nature.

In part two Henri Bortoft introduces the scientific work and the qualitative approach to science of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749 – 1832).

While Goethe’s place in literature and poetry is now unassailable, far less is known about his scientific works, which Goethe himself thought of as his greater achievements. Although his work on animal and plant morphology would influence Charles Darwin, there remain important differences between Goethe and Darwin, and in fact the modern scientific mindset finds it almost impossible to comprehend Goethe’s principle mindset.

To appreciate Goethe’s phenomenal achievement, it is important to know that prior to Goethe, it was not thought that it was possible to understand life, as in living organisms.

Although we sometimes think of the mechanistic worldview as being dominant in science, viewing the universe as a massive clockwork machine, a worldview inspired by a naive view of Newtonian classical physics, in fact much of science spent a great deal of time considering the differences between machines and living organisms. While there were philosophers such as Holbach (1723 – 1789) who in works such as Système de la Nature did conceive of nature as pure mechanism, it could be argued that the more prevalent view, epitomised by Kant (1724 – 1804) was that there was a fundamental difference between inorganic and organic life, but that the secrets of organic life would never be accessible to the human mind.

A plant is not like a machine. The relationship of the parts do not appear to follow one from another, but appear to be guided by an inner principle which is not perceptible to the senses. Kant wanted to say that it was this inner guiding principle which was not accessible to human logic. The human capacity for knowledge was believed to end at the level of organic nature.

Another way to understand organic life is to say that one part of a plant for example does not determine another part. In a plant, it is the whole which determines the parts, but this whole is not a super part, it is not a top down hierarchy, it is not the controller. Goethe used the term entelechy to refer to the way in which a plant has the ability to make itself out of itself, something a machine can not do. But note that we are not talking here about one physical plant reproducing itself into a new plant, for these are just two physical manifestations of the inner guiding principle.

The plant therefore as Goethe understood it was more than the physical plants that we can see. Goethe was able to comprehend the guiding principles which led to life creating itself out of itself, but this comprehension was not through the logical mind, but through the intuition. Living organisms therefore can only be comprehended through an intuitive concept, and unlike machines, need something more than just our sense perceptions to comprehend them.

In this view of nature, we become less focussed on each individual instance of a plant, and instead know the plant as an entity that is never stationary, never at rest, it is constantly reshaping itself, transforming, and therefore it can only be truly comprehended in its becoming, in its development.

While a few scientists who were contemporaries of Goethe did understand his great scientific achievements, the vast majority did not, and perhaps this is still true today, a situation exacerbated by the fact that Goethe’s delicate empiricism as he called it is either not considered science, or not considered at all. But now, with the growing interest in chaos and complexity theory, where the focus is on the qualitative behaviour of systems, the time is now ripe for a re-appraisal of Goethe, and just how fundamentally important his main insight and contribution to science was, and is.

Lecture Four: Thursday

In this lecture Henri continues to examine the scientific works and life of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832). Many people know Goethe only through his literature and poetry, with his lifelong work Faust considered to be one of the greatest contributions to modern European literature.

Goethe, though, was far more than a poet and a writer. His work, covering plants, animal morphology, colour, clouds, weather and geology, has on the whole been ignored in the scientific arena, because many scientists, both during his lifetime and up to the present day, have considered his science to be unworthy of the name, being the work of a romantic dilettante, unable to understand mathematics. It is important therefore to understand the nature of his way of thinking, knowing and penetrating into the phenomena of organic life.

Goethe was closely associated with the Romantic Movement, predominantly due to his close relationship with the poet, playwright and philosopher Friedrich Schiller, who, along with many other great proponents of the Romantic Movement, was based in Jena, just a few miles away from Goethe in Weimar. While Goethe and the Romantic movement both saw limitations in the science of their time, the abstract idealism of the natural philosophy developed by Georg Hegel was almost diametrically opposed to the deeply empirical nature of Goethe’s scientific methods, which were entirely based on systematical observations, as we will see.

Goethe would rarely write or articulate his methods, having ‘no organ for philosophy’ as he put it. His own methods were described back to him by his friend Friedrich Schelling, who saw that what he himself was doing in thought, Goethe was doing in practice. However, some researchers have developed methodologies directly from and inspired by Goethe, and these cover areas as diverse as biology, genetics, landscape, spirituality as well as the Holonomics approach for organisational and cultural transformation as developed by Simon Robinson and Maria Moraes Robinson which they outline in their books ‘Holonomics: Business Where People and Planet Matter’ and ‘Customer Experiences with Soul: A New Era in Design’.

If we study Goethe, we too can begin to enter into his way of seeing, which is designed to move us away from our everyday mode of seeing, which is so theory-driven. It could be said that Goethe’s genius lay in his perceptive abilities and his powers of observation. Goethe felt that his own genius in perception did not come from abilities he was born with, but through long and systematic observation of the subjects in which he was interested, particularly plants. This makes Goethe worth studying, because while many of us will only be able to listen to the music of the great composers such as Bach, Beethoven and Mozart, with Goethe it is as if we can step into his shoes, really seeing the vibrant livingness and complexity that he saw in nature.

In part two of this lecture on wholeness and Goethe’s Metamorphosis of Plants, Henri examines the way in which Goethe spoke about the “conversation between the plant and its environment”. In doing so, Henri describes “the dynamic unity of coming into being” and what it tells us about the nature of plant organs. Henri helps us make sense of this dynamic understanding of natural processes by exploring wholeness within holograms and holographic plates.

We then arrive at a phenomenological understanding of “the self-differencing organ”: If one and the same organ presents itself to us in different forms then each organ is that organ, but differently, but not another organ. Proteus is always one and the same but differently. It is always the very same one, and not another one, and yet it is always becoming different from itself. It becomes other without becoming another. It becomes the other of itself and not another one. Goethe’s one and the same organ manifesting as different forms, is a self-differencing organ, producing differences of itself. So the different organs we see are the self-differences of one organ. What we see is different organs, but these are self-differences of one organ.”

It is easy to fall into an inorganic mechanical way of thinking. We can easily lose sight of the quality of livingness which is the organism’s potency to be otherwise. It can change in order to remain the same. We can think of the organism as responding to changed changed circumstances as if it were a system in physics.

As Goethe said “The plant responds to the challenge of the environment out of its own possibilities.” The plant responds in its own way out of its responsibility to be otherwise.

“The forms of life are not finished work but always forms becoming and their potency to be otherwise is an immediate aspect of their internal constitution. The becoming that belongs to this constitution is not a process that finishes when it reaches a certain goal, but a condition of existence, a necessity to change in order to remain the same.”

Lecture Five: Friday

This lecture begins with a phenomenological exploration of time.

Having explored Goethe’s way of science in previous lectures, an approach to science quite unlike any other, Henri Bortoft then explains just why it is so difficult for us to enter into a dynamic way of seeing. Goethe’s greatest discovery could have been how to encounter and experience that which is active and living in nature by means of the senses and their enhancement; how to go into nature in order to encounter in nature what is active and living instead of only coming into contact with what is already finished relying on the intellectual mind.

In our normal way of doing things, we rely on our verbal intellectual mind and that is the way we are developed through education in the modern western culture. Goethe emphasises that the intellect focuses on things that have become. And hence if we rely on the intellectual mind we will inevitably fail to become aware of things in their coming-into-being.

The verbal intellectual mind functions in terms of abstract generalities and takes us away from the richness and diversity of sensory experience. That actually is its strength and also its weakness. It’s its strength because without it we would become stuck in the sensory and we would never manage to live our lives and organise ourselves and so forth yet at the same time, because of it, without even realising it, pretty quickly we soon overlook the sensory element of experience pretty much completely, even though we are not aware we are doing that.

For Henri, it is possible to take an approach to nature which is very different from the scientific one, one which he describes as a hermeneutic science of nature. This is a science which is truly able to understand the livingness of life as opposed to the study of lifeless forms.

In his normal mode of lecturing, Henri did not often like to take questions during the main sessions as this would take him out of the flow and take students out of the experiencing of the ideas. And more often than not, many questions would be resolved along the path.

In this final lecture, Henri takes a number of questions from students allowing them to take the time to clarify points which they felt needed further investigation. The lecture begins with Chad reading a quote from Rilke’s ‘Letters to a Young Poet’:

“I want to beg you, as much as I can, dear sir, to be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”

In the first part of this lecture, Henri expands on the way in which we can understand speech and meaning dynamically, and the phenomenological approach to hermeneutics. Henri is asked about the book ‘Presence: Human Purpose and the Field of the Future’ by Otto Scharmer, Peter Senge, Joseph Jaworkski and Betty Sue Flowers. Henri does not pull his punches by explaining how many people from the area of sustainability are opposed to the book because it is about business organisations.

While Henri was interviewed for the book and it contains many excellent sections on the dynamic relationship between wholes and parts, it is also a difficult book to recommend to business people because of the fact that in Henri’s opinion, much of it is also “new agey”. Henri does like the book, especially the way in which it describes how the future comes into influence. However, he notes that Scharmer came to believe that the notion of ‘presence’ comes from Goethe, but that this error was Henri’s fault. The original notion of presence comes from Heidegger and this mix up is because Henri describes Goethe in Heiddeger’s terms.

In the final question, Henri is asked about the nature of seeing and the dynamic nature of human beings. He answers the first part of the question with his signature sense of humour. But he answers by exploring the dynamic quality of unity in human beings with his great sense of humility as well:

“The whole tendency in European philosophy is to stop thinking of beings that do things. Just think of the action of doing things without thinking of the entity that does it. You’ve got to stop thinking in terms of beings that do, and start thinking instead in terms of doings that be. This is the attitude to take. A lot of the time we actually think of ourselves as a being that is doing and the dynamic approach is to see this action which ‘be-s’. We are that act. We are the act which ‘be-s’. We are ‘be-ing’ ourselves, but don’t get caught up on the self. What we really are is the act, and in that sense we are intrinsically dynamic. We are not actually entities at all, we are ‘act’. This is very clear in Heidegger and other philosophers. The reason people can not understand his descriptions is that this is how he is describing it. They are trying to think of it in terms of beings that do. We are ‘doing’. We are ‘act’ that ‘be-s’. This is the dynamic and this is how we should approach ourselves.

This is the dynamic. Don’t worry about the unity, it will take care of itself. If you focus on the wholeness, eventually it will go wrong. You have to go past the wholeness to the dynamics. When you get the dynamic of the coming-into-being you find the wholeness is there. If you get the dynamics right, the wholeness will take care of itself. You will see what unity is, you do not have to worry about it.”


The lectures were recorded at The Old Postern, Schumacher College, Totnes, Devon, September 2010. This lecture series is ©Jacqueline Bortoft and has been made available with her kind permission.

Recommended reading

Henri Bortoft, The Wholeness of Nature: Goethe’s Way of Science

Henri Bortoft, Taking Appearance Seriously: The Dynamic Way of Seeing in Goethe and European Thought

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

Simon Robinson and Maria Moraes Robinson, Customer Experiences with Soul: A new Era in Design

Emma Kidd, First Steps to Seeing: A Path to Living Attentively

2 responses to “Henri Bortoft’s 2010 Schumacher College lectures

  1. Pingback: Henri Bortoft’s Explorations of Goethe’s Dynamic Way of Seeing | Transition Consciousness·

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