The Foundations of Holonomics 2.2: Our Lived Experience of Wholeness

The second lecture from Henri Bortoft was recorded in two parts, and so I felt that it made more sense to present them separately. In this section, Henri takes questions from a number of students, and so it may be better to listen with headphones if you wish to pick up on some of the comments from people further away from the microphone.

Henri’s discourse is extremely interesting for the way in which he explains how he discovered the language of the presencing of the whole in Heidegger’s post Being and Time writings when Heidegger went back to the philosophy of the Greeks:


“I tried to express the difference between this and the systems approach in a paper which I gave at a conference at the beginning of the 1970s. What I wanted to do in this paper was to find a way of talking about wholeness that would avoid the ‘totalitarian’ tendency of systems theory — as a result of which the whole is reified and separated from the parts which it then dominates. The aim is to avoid reductionism without replacing it by holism. The hermeneutic circle gives us a different way of thinking, in which the parts depend upon the whole, but equally the whole depends on the parts.

I found the language I was looking for in Heidegger’s notion of ‘presence’ (not to be confused with `present’), ‘presencing, ‘coming-to-presence, and so on. This enabled me to say that the whole presences within the parts, which is intended to convey the sense that it is always implicit and can never become explicit as such — if it did it would become ‘present’ as an object (it would come `outside’) and hence separate from the parts. If the whole presences within the parts, then the only way to encounter the whole is within the parts through which it presences, and not by standing back from the parts to try and get an ‘overview’ of the whole.

In her Safeguarding Our Common Future, Ingrid Stefanovic gives a beautiful illustration of this:

At the very least a new way of seeing things seems to be called for. I am reminded of my first experiences in photography, when I lived in a particularly beautiful section of Victoria, British Columbia some years ago. The spectacular houses and gardens of Oak Bay had been part of my everyday world for only a few months when I resolved one weekend to meander through my neighbourhood, capturing images through the lens of my new camera. For the first time, I took note of details of leaded windows, garden fountains and pools, and flowers that were, miraculously, already blooming in February.

The experience led me to realise that, while the camera focused my attention on specific aspects of my neighbourhood, what made these images special was that they constituted more than an isolated, atomistic parcelling up of the neighbourhood through the camera lens. Instead, each image was significant inasmuch as it captured and articulated in a distinctive way, the sense of place of the neighbourhood as a whole. On the one hand I was drawn to notice particular details that I had missed, when I had not sought them out through the lens of my camera. On the other hand, each individual photograph was all the more meaningful to the degree that the broader sense of the place as a whole was reflected and even in some sense enriched in each photographic image.’

This ‘resonance of the whole sense of place within the perspective of each individual photograph’ is clearly an instance of the coming-to-presence of the whole within the parts.”

Henri Bortoft, Taking Appearance Seriously, pp15-16


Following this discussion, Henri cites psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist, author of The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Modern World. This is an important discussion due to the way in which modern neuropsychological research supports Henri’s philosophical explorations of different modes of attention and consciousness.

The brain is divided with the two hemispheres operating in profoundly different ways, but not as we realise. McGilkchrist suggests that the left hemisphere provides instrumental attention. This allows us to manipulate objects, and use things for our benefit. But this type of attention is narrowly focussed, and it means that we experience reality as fragmented, static and ultimately lifeless.

It is the right hemisphere that provides what McGilchrist calls relational attention, enabling us to see the whole picture, to form social bonds, to inhabit and belong to the world we see, rather than simply being detached from it and using it:


“Looking back now, it seems to me that the difference between the two approaches to wholeness reflects the difference between the world as mediated through the two hemispheres of the brain. Although the experience of wholeness has always been identified with the right half of the brain, it is now recognised that every characteristic of experience is in fact mediated  through both sides of the brain, and consequently this must also be the case with wholeness.

According to Iain McGilchrist: ‘the right hemisphere delivers what is new as it “presences” — before the left hemisphere gets to represent it’. Where the right hemisphere mediates the lived experience of wholeness, the left hemisphere mediates its representation — it replaces experience with a model of experience, which then gets confused with and mistaken for experience itself. The wholeness of the system is the left brain representation of the wholeness which presences through the right brain. This explains why it is that the systems approach seems to be dealing with wholeness, but does so in an artificial way that is a counterfeit of authentic wholeness.”

Henri Bortoft, Taking Appearance Seriously, pp16-17


When we study both McGilchrist’s research and explore the implications in relation to the dynamic conception of wholeness and the structure of our lived experience, we can develop an appreciation for the way in which why the bipartite structure of the brain helps us to understand why the world so often seems paradoxical, and why we so often end up achieving the opposite of what we intend.

While this philosophical discussion of being and lived experience may at first appear to be highly academic due to its philosophical nature, when you develop an ability to enter into this profound way of seeing, you are able to appreciate the extremely important practical implications and applications.

One example of this is our Customer Experiences with Soul framework which shows how our Holonomics Approach can be applied to the area of customer experience design. This framework, which we describe in Customer Experiences with Soul: A New Era in Design, introduces our tool, the Holonomic Circle, which articulates the meaning of soul in a design, business and branding context.

The Holonomic Circle

The Holonomic Circle: Simon Robinson and Maria Moraes Robinson (2017) Customer Experiences with Soul

The Holonomic Circle provides a holistic framework for designers, corporate entrepreneurs, creative leaders and those starting a new business or initiative to explore the principles underlying the dynamics of soulful customer experiences. The   tool allows us to ask probing questions about the customer experience and the very being of brands from a perspective which more traditional tools have never previously covered. To help illustrate each aspect of the holonomic circle, our book  includes in-depth, visionary interviews from entrepreneurs, CEOs, designers, artists and philosophers.

Having listened to this lecture, you may wish to read these following articles which reference and feature Ingrid Stefanovic and Iain McGilchrist:

Ingrid Stefanovic’s Phenomenological Contribution to Sustainability

Guest Article: Iain McGilchrist on the Divided Brain

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, The Wholeness of Nature: Goethe’s Way of Science, Floris Books, Edinbugh
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

2 responses to “The Foundations of Holonomics 2.2: Our Lived Experience of Wholeness

  1. Pingback: The Foundations of Holonomics 4: Going Upstream | Transition Consciousness·

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

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s