The Foundations of Holonomics 2.1: Bohm, Bohr and the Holographic Approach in Organisations

In this second lecture (which was recorded in two parts), Henri Bortoft describes the way in which Niels Bohr and David Bohm develop differing interpretations of ways of understanding quantum physics.

What is so interesting about this first part of the lecture is the way in which Henri explains that although Bohm thought that Bohr was wrong, he also thought that he was a very remarkable person, and a deeper thinker than his followers knew. This is an example of the value of studying the thought processes and thinking of people with whom you disagree, in order to develop your own faculties of analysis and understanding.

It should also be pointed out that Bohm received a great deal of negative reactions when he published his theories, and these continue to this day with prominent physicists and systems thinkers who feel that Bohm introduces unnecessary constructs into his theory of wholeness.

However, as you will see in this extract below, one of Bohm’s great contributions to both science and philosophy was the way he encouraged people to develop through ‘templates of thinking’, one of which was the hologram:


“My main concern was with the claim that systems theory is a science of wholeness. This arose out of my experience as a postgraduate research student in physics at Birkbeck College early in the 1960s, where I worked on the problem of wholeness in the quantum theory. It had become clear that a fundamentally new way of thinking was needed for quantum physics, even though such a possibility had been explicitly denied by Niels Bohr in what was referred to as the Copenhagen interpretation of the quantum theory, which had become the most widely accepted view among physicists as a result of Bohr’s extraordinary persuasiveness.

But David Bohm believed this could be done. He pointed to examples which he said could function as templates for a new way of thinking about wholeness. One of these was the hologram — which at the time in question was a technological innovation.

Photo: Simon Robinson

This appealed to the imagination because, unlike a photographic plate (where each point of the image on the plate corresponds approximately to a point on the object), with the hologram each part of the plate contains information about the whole object. Thus instead of localised parts, with the hologram the whole is present in each part and each part is distributed throughout the whole. To use the language which Bohm later adopted: the whole is enfolded in the part and each part is enfolded in the whole.’ These ideas of Bohm’s encouraged some of us to think that the wholeness of human organisations, at whatever level, could not be understood adequately by means of the systems approach because something more ‘holographic’ was needed.”

Henri Bortoft, Taking Appearance Seriously, pp13-14


In this next section below, you can see how Henri was one of the leading thinkers of the 70s to attempt to put this new holographic way of understanding wholeness into practice in organisations:


“One of the areas in which we were working required the design of an ‘attitude survey’ for the preliminary stage of gathering information prior to the introduction of an organisational change. We adopted the philosophy that each person in their role in an organisation is in fact an expression of the organisation as a whole, so that we could say the whole organisation comes to expression, to some degree, through the role of each person in that organisation.

So if the whole comes to expression through its parts — which will therefore each include reflections of all the others to some degree (i.e. they are internally related) — then the way to understand the whole is through the way it is expressed within the parts, instead of trying to stand back to get an overview to see how the parts could be made to fit together into a whole — which all too often seemed to be the outcome, if not the intention, of the systems approach. In practical terms, if the way into the whole is through the parts, each of which is an expression of the whole, instead of trying to get a total overview of the whole, then this meant talking to everyone in the organisation because, whoever they were, the whole was coming into expression through them, no matter how partially.

Encountering the whole in this way felt like entering into another dimension of the organisation — but a concrete dimension — compared with the usual way of thinking. Our practical task, as we interpreted it, was to devise surveys and other materials which would facilitate this ‘holographic’ approach to the wholeness of the organisation in which we could begin to see the wholeness from within the organisation, instead of trying to `see it as a whole’ by standing outside of it.”

Henri Bortoft, Taking Appearance Seriously, p13


This section is important in understanding Henri’s opposition to certain forms of systems thinking which we explore in the previous lecture. Henri develops this line of thinking in this following extract:


“One day I was trying to describe the idea behind this work to Brian Lewis, who was professor of educational systems at the Open University. He told me that it sounded to him very similar to what is called ‘the hermeneutic circle, and he suggested that I looked into the philosophy of hermeneutics.’ This philosophy arose in the first place in connection with questions about how we understand written works — whether they be scriptural, philosophical, literary, historical, or legal.

But it became apparent that hermeneutics applies more widely to all forms of expression, and hence to any kind of cultural expression from the simplest to the most complex. Put simply, if somewhat abstractly, the hermeneutic circle arises from the circumstance that, in order to understand the whole we must understand the parts, but in order to understand the parts we must understand the whole.

It became obvious immediately that the holographic approach to wholeness — with which it was intended to replace the systems approach — had a form which is very similar to that of the hermeneutic circle, and hence that what we thought of as a ‘holographic’ survey could equally well be thought of as a ‘hermeneutic’ survey. Switching from the holographic model to hermeneutics, had the advantage that it located what we were trying to do in the context of a known, even if unfamiliar, philosophical tradition.

This opened the door to the possibility that systems thinking could be replaced by hermeneutic thinking in the context of human organisations. There was an explosion of activity as some of us explored the hermeneutic dimension of the organisation in as many ways as we could find — which included one occasion when I found myself giving a seminar on ‘The Hermeneutics of the Organisation’ to the somewhat bemused management of IBM.”

Henri Bortoft, Taking Appearance Seriously, pp13-14


As Henri observes towards the end of the lecture, applying hermeneutics to organisations proved difficult initially and so eventually the first researchers went in different directions. 

In order to overcome these difficulties in incorporating hermeneutical methodologies in an organisational context, Maria Moraes Robinson and I started to develop our Holonomics approach in 2011. We describe this approach which integrates the dynamic conception of wholeness and systems thinking together in our first book, Holonomics: Business Where People and Planet Matter.

We were invited to launch our book in 2014 at Sustainable Brands London, where we gave the opening keynote presentation. We decided to focus on a practical case study, which is described in detail in our second book, Customer Experiences with Soul: A New Era in Design.

When you listen to this presentation, you will hear the way in which we describe this dynamic conception of wholeness as it relates to understanding the lived experience of every single person in an organisation, as well as understanding the way in which each person expresses ‘the whole’ in their own individual manner.

As these lectures progress, we will continue to explore more key concepts in this approach which takes us into the “seeing of what is seen”. In this manner we will be learning how to shift our attention, and therefore learn how to develop new ways to design interventions, programmes, tools and methodologies which can be put into practice in manner different contexts.


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

4 responses to “The Foundations of Holonomics 2.1: Bohm, Bohr and the Holographic Approach in Organisations

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