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.


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

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