Henri Bortoft’s Explorations of Goethe’s Dynamic Way of Seeing

As many of you will be aware, I am now coming towards the end of publishing Henri Bortoft’s 2010 lectures at Schumacher College. These follow on from the 2009 series of lectures which I published last year.

Henri Bortoft, 2009

Henri Bortoft was the key philosopher and teacher who absolutely took me across the threshold of liminality and into the dynamic way of understanding wholeness in systems. For this reason his two main books, The Wholeness of Nature: Goethe’s Way of Science and Taking Appearance Seriously: The Dynamic Way of Seeing in Goethe and European Thought are where the philosophy of wholeness in Holonomics Business Where People and Planet Matter comes from.

We wrote our second book, Customer Experiences with Soul, in order to complement Holonomics with a deeper approach to customer experience design. This approach was developed to enable entrepreneurs and leaders to develop organisations and enterprises which are in harmony with nature and society and which recognise that financial aspects are just one dimension of many which define success, such as longevity, fairness, purpose, social and environmental contributions.

The Holonomics approach treats business organisations as authentic and coherent wholes (to use Henri’s terminology), including radically new ways to envision strategy development and implementation, customer experience design and business model evolution. Financial results are seen from a systemic perspective as an important but not unique factor which enable an organisation to achieve long term sustainability, being the outcome of purpose-driven missions and visions.

In his lectures at Schumacher College, Henri dedicated a number of hours towards his exploration of Goethe’s dynamic way of seeing which is found in his scientific works, works which in general are far less well-known and understood than his literary and poetic works. For this reason I thought I would group these three lectures together as a single module for those who are studying Holonomics and who wish to explore this aspect of our approach in more detail:

In this first two lectures Henri introduces the scientific work and the qualitative approach to science of Goethe. 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 principled mindset.

In this third 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.

‘Deep Ecology’ is the name given to a movement set up by a number of ecologists who are trying to solve the ecological problems that we face from a very deep level. They have a profound connection to nature and the natural world.

Those in the deep ecology movement do not merely understand the science of ecology, the implications of climate change and our human impact on the world as an academic exercise, nor as series of statistics. In them we see people who have already made the great shift into a dynamical way of seeing, and this is manifest in their way of being, moving to more regenerative economic systems which are in harmony with our planet’s ecosystems.

Holonomics was written to help people make not only a shift in their thinking, but also their way of seeing, our way of seeing is so intimately entwined with our ways of thinking. Through Henri’s exploration of the dynamic conception of wholeness, we begin to experience ourselves not a separate but as an integral part of nature and of Earth’s living systems. In order to help introduce these three lectures from Henri I therefore thought I would also share an extract where we introduce Goethe’s way of science and how it relates to deep ecology and the development of a more regenerative way of thinking and being.

Goethe’s Way of Seeing

from Holonomics: Business Where People and Planet Matter

Many people know Johann Wolfgang von 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, and when you study his life you are left with a sense of wonder and bewilderment at his genius, especially when his scientific body of work opens up to you.

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. Nothing could be further from the truth, and it is important not only to study the results of Goethe’s work, such as that on morphology, of which Goethe is the founding father, but also to understand the nature of his way of thinking, knowing and penetrating into the phenomena of organic life.

Goethe was born in Germany in 1749. As a student, between 1765 and 1768, he studied law at Leipzig, but this bored him and while there he also enrolled in science courses which covered anatomy, electricity and magnetism. Goethe took a keen interest in medicine, as well as studying philosophy, but (in his own words) the works of Gottfried Leibniz and Christian Wolff ‘simply refused to become clear to me’. His studies were curtailed in 1768 due to illness, but through the visits of his physician he developed an interest in alchemy and the writings of Paracelsus. In 1774 he wrote The Sorrows of Young Werther, the novel which led to his worldwide fame, and which also led him to being invited into the court of the eighteen year old Duke Karl August in Weimar, which became his permanent place of residence until his death in 1832.

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 was a man deeply grounded in reality, living a life completely in the everyday world, in which he was an excellent administrator of the Duchy of Saxe-Weimar, in charge of the forestry, mines and market gardens, and actively involved with the affairs of the tiny state. Goethe emphasised in his writings the importance he attached to having such a physical and practical life, and so his great works should not be seen as those of a whimsical poet, but rather as a great and active doer, for whom the description ‘prolific’ appears to be woefully inadequate.

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 and business strategy (as we described in Holonomics: Business Where People and Planet Matter).

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.

Clockwork Dreams/Clockwork Universe: NitroX72, Deviant Art – Reproduced with permission from the artist

Before we look at some of Goethe’s different scientific studies, it is worth contemplating what his greatest achievement was, in order to place his studies in a wider context. Prior to Goethe, it was thought that it was not possible to understand life, as in living organisms. We sometimes think of the mechanistic world view as being dominant in science during Goethe’s era, viewing the universe as a massive clockwork machine, a world view inspired by a naive understanding of Newtonian classical physics. While there were philosophers such as Baron d’Holbach (1723–1789) who, in works such as The System of Nature did conceive of nature as pure mechanism, it could be argued that the more prevalent view, epitomised by Immanuel 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.

When thinking about a simple inorganic mechanistic system, we can explain the movement of bodies that use mass, direction and velocity, and so long as we know the starting conditions, we can predict the outcome. This is well known, and Newton’s mechanics (only slightly modified) were good enough to get us to the Moon. The key point here is that these factors, including heat and weight and time, are all available to our senses. We do not have to go beyond our senses to access them; we can perceive them directly. We can explain the workings of a machine if we understand the interactions of each of its parts. The unifying principle of the machine lies outside the parts, that is, it lies in the plan in the head of the builder.

A plant is not like a machine. The relationships 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.

Photo: Simon Robinson

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 cannot 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 intuition. Living organisms, therefore, can only be comprehended through an ‘intuitive concept’, and unlike machines, they need something more than just our sense perceptions to comprehend them. In this view of nature, we become less focused 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’.

Rudolf Steiner described Goethe as ‘the Copernicus and Kepler of the organic world’. Although the nature of organic life was known long before Goethe, it was Goethe who discovered its lawfulness. In Goethe’s time, the overriding paradigm in understanding plant and animal morphology was classification, where efforts were directed in searching for all the differences between species. For Goethe this could never succeed, and he felt that he was able to perceive the same underlying lawful principles across animals and across plants.

If we look at Charles Darwin (1809–1882), we see that his theoretical foundations are often presented as outer influences working mechanically on organisms. Goethe understood organisms as having an ability to take on many forms, which were contingent on outer conditions, that is, the environment. Hence, as Steiner puts it, ‘external conditions are the outer inducement for the inner forces to manifest in a particular way’. What does Steiner mean by this? We find the answer in Goethe’s discovery of the intermaxillary bone, a little bone found between the lower and upper jaws of animals, and a bone which, prior to Goethe’s discovery, was not thought to be present in humans. Hence, in the mindset that is always looking for differences, this was seen as a central trait distinguishing humans from animals.

Goethe though, was able to conceive of the existence of the bone in humans, because whereas others sought difference, he was able to see unifying principles which were present in all organisms, but which manifested concretely in different species. Hence, when Goethe undertook many observational studies of skulls, his way of looking enabled him to perceive the bone in humans, but only in extremely young babies, since the bone ‘disappears’ as the child grows. This bone is not easy to see, because seeing it depends on the quality and condition of the skulls being examined; but there is something in the way of looking which enables the bone to be seen, whereas previously it was missed.

Photo: Holonomics Education

There are a number of reasons why Goethe’s way of seeing is so difficult for us as westerners to grasp. Even some of the most well-regarded authors on Goethe, past and present, have failed to truly grasp his dynamical way of seeing. The very dynamics of seeing lead us away from it, to the end product of what is seen. There is something about how ‘seeing’ works that contributes to us not noticing it in our normal lives, and not being taught how to see in this manner, so that by the time we are adults and arrive at university, we are not even aware that another way of seeing exists. Henri puts it this way: ‘The dynamics of thinking promotes its own eclipse’.

Goethe directs us into the sensory experience and away from the verbal, logical, conceptual and abstract mind. In our lives, we start off as children sensing the living qualities of a leaf; but as adults, when we are out in nature, if we are not mentally present we tend only to see the leaf as an abstract category. The verbal intellectual mind is an excellent tool for dealing with the logic of dead solids, but when we move into an analysis of dynamic organisms, our minds encounter paradoxes, which they are unable to resolve within their own way of thinking.

Goethe awakens us to a more holistic and dynamical way of seeing, which transforms the way in which we come to know living organisms. In following Goethe’s methodology, we plunge right into the sensory way of knowing, and from there we relive the experience of what we have observed in our imagination. When we recreate phenomena in our minds, it is important not to embellish the phenomena with elements that we ourselves have created. There is, therefore, a dynamic process of paying close attention to phenomena, imagining the phenomena, and then going back to check how closely our imagination fits in with what we have observed. Simply doing this with a branch can be quite an eye-opener, since it can reveal to us just how little we are able to observe in the first instance.


Extract taken from Holonomics: Business Where People and Planet Matter, Simon Robinson and Maria Moraes Robinson (2014)

Simon Robinson is the co-founder of Holonomics Education, a strategy and innovation consultancy based in São Paulo whose mission is to help organisations to implement great customer experiences, powerful and effective strategies, and develop purposeful, meaningful and sustainable brands. He is the co-author of Customer Experiences with Soul: A New Era in Design and his research examines how the dynamic conception of wholeness in hermeneutics and phenomenology can deepen our thinking on innovation, customer experience design and the circular economy.

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