The Foundations of Holonomics 1: The Dynamic Way of Thinking

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When I look back on my time at university studying psychology, and think about the most important insight into the human condition that it gave me, I would say that for me, it is the way in which psychological training reveals to a practitioner the level of which their behaviour during any form of experimental, observation or interview can impact on those being studied. A psychology student is given years of training in how to avoid any unwanted or inadvertent distortion of psychological experiments and studies through the use of many different methodologies, thereby attaining the highest level of scientific validity.

I did though finish my studies with an acute level of dissatisfaction, not having fully realised my dream of exploring the human condition to its fullest extent. In spending so much time exploring computation models of cognition, I felt that what it meant to be human in our world had somehow become lost.

My love though of psychology allowed me to start my career as a psychologist at BT Laboratories in the Human Factors Department. In the early 90s, along with my colleagues in both Human Factors and Marketing, we developed a new process for the conception, design and implementation of new products and services which had the customer experience as its central focus.

At its heart of this initiative was a programme of research into human needs. By bringing together Marketing and Human Factors with more radical perspectives such as semiotics and anthropology, creative and visualisation skills, and rapid technological advances, we were able to generate an environment for user-centred innovation which was extremely advanced for its time. By developing more streamlined methods of defining and delivering innovative products enabling British Telecom to adapt to the convergence of technologies and markets, rapid technological advance and intense global competition.

Because of my role in promoting the importance of user-centred design practices in BT, I was invited in 1996 to become the business development manager responsible for smart phones. I was therefore able to take all of my knowledge and insights of customer experience design and psychology, and put these into practice into the central core strategy of one of the most innovative companies in the world.

The 1990s were an extremely exciting time to be involved in the development of new mobile and internet technologies, and it gave me a great appreciation of how to deal with complex issues involving multiple stakeholders through the creation of business models developed through partnerships which at one and the same time involved both competition and co-creation.

On a personal level I was also developing a deepening awareness of social and ecological issues, interests which would lead me to studying the masters degree in Holistic Science at Schumacher College, where two extremely significant moments in my life would occur.

Henri Bortoft at Schumacher College

The first would be meeting and studying the dynamic conception of wholeness with Henri Bortoft, a physicist and philosopher whose work explores the concept of wholeness in natural systems and within lived experience. While I had been interested in the question of wholeness in quantum physics, Henri’s work introduced me to the revolution in philosophy which occurred also at the beginning of the twentieth century, one which reveals the hidden dynamics of human experience.

The second moment that happened at Schumacher College was meeting my now wife Maria. This was a meeting of both mind and soul, and led to many discussions about the need for transformation and change not only in organisations, but also in the world of sustainability, which was often characterised by a conflicting relationship with the business community.

Maria Moraes Robinson

Maria is one of the world’s leading experts in Balanced Scorecard, a methodology by which many of the world’s largest businesses and organisations design, articulate and implement their strategies. In addition, Maria had also been deepening her studies in human values in education, and it soon became clear to us that we had the elements to design radical new approach to business which could be applied to strategy, cultural transformation, customer experience, design, innovation and corporate education.

One of the key foundations of this new approach is the dynamic conception of wholeness which was the natural result of Henri’s years of philosophical investigations and study. We therefore called our approach the Holonomics approach, describing it in detail in Holonomics: Business Where People and Planet Matter in 2014. We followed up Holonomics with a second book Customer Experiences with Soul: A New Era in Design, published in 2017, which provides both case studies and the tools we have created which allow people to put our approach into practice.

In order to help people deepen their appreciation and understanding of the dynamic conception of wholeness, and thereby the dynamic way of thinking, I have created and curated this series which consists of Henri Bortoft’s lectures at Schumacher College from 2011. To accompany each lecture I am also providing those key extracts from Henri’s final book, Taking Experience Seriously, published in 2012, from which he would read to students.

Not only will this help locate those extracts which feature in each lecture, these readings will help take you into the dynamic way of thinking. Henri had an almost unique style of philosophical writing which focused on the philosophical work, as opposed to simply a discussion of philosophical works. Taking Appearance Seriously was written as a meditation on the dynamic conception of wholeness, and for this reason I am grateful to Floris Books for allowing me permission to include these key extracts.

You can listen to the first lecture here:

My reason for writing this introduction to the development of the Holonomics approach was to emphasise the great practical importance of Henri’s work to the design, development and evolution of every aspect of organisational life. Below is a list of just some of the core skills which will be required in the future workplace, especially once artificial intelligence and other technologies really have made their impact:

  • complex problem solving
  • critical thinking
  • creativity
  • people management
  • decision making
  • cognitive flexibility
  • empathy
  • emotional intelligence

In addition to these challenges, we as the human race are facing every great complex and inter-related ecological and social challenges which mean now more than ever before we need to develop ever greater sensitivities to those with conflicting or incompatible world-views to ourselves, in order that we can overcome limiting mindsets and attitudes which can prevent us from co-creating the solutions so urgently required around the world.

By following Henri’s articulation of the dynamic way of thinking, we come to develop a deeper sense of how we make sense of the world, the role language and thought play in how we construct our worlds, and how we can develop a more intelligent sensitivity to the lived experience of other people whose reality may well be extremely different to our own.

In Holonomics we discus the way in which the dynamic conception of wholeness can complement traditional systems thinking by developing an understanding of the way in which phenomena in complex systems belong together. We also show how our critical thinking skills can be enhanced by an appreciation of the coming-into-being of phenomena in the world, in other words, how it is that phenomena come to appear to us as meaningful entities which are part of our human experience.

For this reason I am extremely happy to introduce this new series of articles and lectures which if followed through with a close reading of Taking Appearance Seriously, Holonomics and Customer Experiences with Soul, will lead to a proudly new awareness and understanding of how we can enact powerful new strategies for change that can really make an impact in all our spheres of life, from business to sustainability, regeneration, design, literature and the arts.

In this first lecture, Henri offers and introduction to both his work and how he came to be so interested in the philosophical question of what he terms ‘the dynamics of being’. In this extract below, he introduces his book and its central theme:


“This is a book about a different way of thinking. The dynamic way of thinking — which is the general name I am going to give it — first appears in European thought at the beginning of the nineteenth century with Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and the early Romantics, and the philosophers Schelling and Hegel, all of whom were in and around Jena at the same time. Here, as always, it takes a form that is specific to the particular circumstances in which it appears. Confusing the container with the content, as we so often do, means that inevitably we end up focusing too much attention on the specific form which this way of thinking takes in a particular instance, and consequently fail to see the more universal content which is the movement of thinking itself.

The dynamic way of thinking appears again in European thought in the first part of the twentieth century in the philosophy of phenomenology and hermeneutics. Here once again we are too easily seduced by the specifics of the occasion to notice the more universal element. Divergent as these philosophical movements may seem outwardly — and they are divergent — they nevertheless belong together when they are seen in terms of the movement of thinking which each expresses in its own different way.

The significance of this dynamic way of understanding easily gets lost in the obfuscations of philosophers who, in their endless attempts to justify what they are doing, all too often succeed only in covering it over with a dense layer of what to others seems to be just impenetrable jargon. The vision gets lost, and what is left descends into an intellectual exercise, which turns round upon itself endlessly until it ceases to be of interest to any but a few.

This is such a pity, because there is something here which is potentially of much wider interest and which needs to be brought out. I believe this can be done by taking a more concrete approach. This is what I am going to do here, and for this reason I am going to begin by going back to my own first encounters with the dynamic way of thinking.”

Henri Bortoft, Taking Appearance Seriously, pp10-11


In the 1960s and 1970s Henri was quite radically opposed to limitations in both General Systems Theory (not to be confused with the more general term ‘systems thinking’) and also the way in which General Systems Theory was being applied in organisations.

As part of an independent group of researchers Henri explored ways in which management education, organisational development and communication could be improved in businesses and organisations. In this second extract, Henri explains the remarkable similarities between Descarte’s Cartesian paradigm and the notion of unification in the systems theories which had been developed in the previous decades:


“My introduction to European philosophy came through an unusual route. I had been working in a small research group investigating more effective ways of communicating ideas in education. At the time — the late 1960s and early 1970s — there was a growing interest in the UK in management education and organisational development. The kind of methods for more effective communication which we were researching turned out to be also of interest here — in fact more so than in mainstream education, where institutional constraints sometimes made innovation difficult.

This was at the time when ‘Systems Theory’ was very much in vogue in the world of management and organisation. Diagrams were much in evidence, usually consisting of words in boxes joined together by lines to represent connections. The aim of systems thinking was to move away from the emphasis on the idea of basic building blocks towards the idea of the overall order of the organisational form.

Systems thinking is often presented as a revolution in thinking that overcomes the limitations of the Cartesian paradigm of analytical thinking that has been central to modern thought. In some ways this is undoubtedly true — in the Cartesian paradigm the behaviour of the whole can be reduced to the behaviour of the parts, for example, whereas the very opposite is the case in systems thinking. However, in another respect systems thinking has a surprising affinity with Descartes’ methodological goal, so much so in fact that it could even be called the ultimate fulfilment of Descartes’ dream.

The failure to recognise this is a consequence of selecting only part of Descartes’ work for attention, instead of seeing it more comprehensively. What was central for Descartes was his dream of a mathesis universalis (universal mathematics), which would be in effect a seventeenth century ‘unified science’ or ‘theory of everything. Having shown that problems in geometry could be expressed as problems in algebra, so that figures could be eliminated from geometry, thereby unifying what until then had been thought to be two different sciences (this is what Descartes called them), he believed that it must be possible to go further in the direction of unification by eliminating quantity itself from mathematics. The resulting universal science could then apply to any subject matter whatsoever. In his Rules for the Direction of the Mind, he says:

I came to see that the exclusive concern of mathematics is with questions of order and measure and that it is irrelevant whether the measure in question involves numbers, shapes, stars, sounds, or any other object whatsoever. This made me realise that there must be a general science which explains all the points that can be raised concerning order and measure irrespective of the subject-matter, and that science should be termed mathesis universalis [universal mathematics].

This dream of a unified science emerged again in the 1920s, some three hundred years later, among the philosophers and scientists who were part of what came to be known as the Vienna Circle. Some of these — notably Rudolf Carnap — believed that all the different sciences (including psychology and sociology) could be unified by effectively reducing all the sciences to physics, since this is the science closest to pure mathematics. Although this suggestion may seem very strange to us today, this gross reductionism was embraced enthusiastically by some until the 1960s.

However, another member of the Vienna Circle, Ludwig von Bertalanffy, advocated a different approach which led eventually to what he called General Systems Theory. Instead of producing unification by reducing all sciences ultimately to the method of physics, von Bertalanffy proposed a mathematical science of general systems which would apply to all systems irrespective of their nature, whether they be physical, chemical, organic, ecological, psychological, sociological, cultural or historical. He said that, just as the mathematical theory of probability deals with ‘chance events’ as such, irrespective of their nature, so general systems theory would deal with ‘organised wholes’ as such. It would apply to all the sciences — physical, biological, psychological, sociological, and even to history. As he put it, the ‘Unity of Science is granted, not by a utopian reduction of all sciences to physics and chemistry, but by the structural uniformities of the different levels of reality’.”

Henri Bortoft, Taking Appearance Seriously, pp11-12


This lecture is fascinating in that it helps us to understand that within Descartes’ thinking there was a holistic form of thinking, and that also within systems thinking there is a potential trap of falling into “totalitarianism” in cases where the whole is somehow conceived as separate, elevated and superior to the parts in a system.

Henri finishes this lecture by reflecting on the stance he took towards systems thinking in his younger years. In 2009 when I was studying with Henri, our group discussed the way on which Henri’s phenomenological and hermeneutical approach to understanding the dynamic relationship between the whole and the parts in systems could be reconciled.

After having watched this lecture, you may therefore be interested to see the dialogue which came out of this conversation which we published in Holonomics and which you can read in this article: Belonging Together in Nature: Deepening our Sense of Systems in the World

In the next part of this series Henri will look back at his days when he was a physicist studying the question of wholeness in quantum physics with David Bohm, and how this would lead to the development of a holographic approach to understanding organisations.


The lectures were recorded at The Old Postern, Schumacher College, Totnes, Devon, in September 2011. The lectures are ©Jacqueline Bortoft and have been made available with her kind permission.

All extracts from Henri Bortoft (2012), Taking Appearance Seriously, have been reproduced with permission from Floris Books, Edinburgh.

Recommended reading to accompany this series:

Henri Bortoft (1996), The Wholeness of Nature: Goethe’s Way of Science, Floris Books, Edinbugh
Henri Bortoft (2012), Taking Appearance Seriously: The Dynamic Way of Seeing in Goethe and European Thought, Floris Books, Edinbugh
Simon Robinson and Maria Moraes Robinson (2014), Holonomics: Business Where People and Planet Matter, Floris Books, Edinbugh
Simon Robinson and Maria Moraes Robinson (2017), Customer Experiences with Soul: A New Era in Design, Holonomics Publishing, London

6 responses to “The Foundations of Holonomics 1: The Dynamic Way of Thinking

  1. Pingback: The Foundations of Holonomics 8: Goethe’s Italian Journey | Transition Consciousness·

  2. ” … and that also within systems thinking there is a potential trap of falling into “totalitarianism” in cases where the whole is somehow conceived as separate, elevated and superior to the parts in a system.”

    I was surprised when Henri said this, and several hours of letting it simmer hasn’t clarified quite what he means. Can anyone give a concrete example of how this would play out in a person?

  3. Hi Sue,

    In the dynamic conception of wholeness, the “whole” is conceived of as an “active abscence” rather than having the same ontological status as a part in a system. If you think about totalitariam social systems, people (i.e. the parts) lose their identity and have to submit to the will of the state (the whole). However, when we study organic living systems, we discover that wholes can be thought of as something altogether different. We no longer think of parts as being subordinate or nested inside of larger wholes, rather we seek to understand the way in which each part is an expression of the whole, and we also at the same time attempt to understand the way that the whole comes into being through the parts, as opposed to having some kind of independent existence. In terms of actual examples, for me this approach to wholeness changes the fundamental approach to design and the creation of human systems. In this 15 minute talk, you will hear an example of how the dynamic conception of wholeness inspired the design of an intervention for a hospital in São Paulo:

    • Ah! Fascinating. A true yin-in-the-yang/yang-in-the-yin interacfion. Gee, I would have killed to work somewhere like that. Thank you.

  4. Pingback: The Foundations of Holonomics: Exploring Wholeness in Nature and Organisations | Transition Consciousness·

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