The Foundations of Holonomics 3: The Act of Distinction

One of the most significant aspects of the Holonomics approach is the way in which dynamic systems are approached from multi perspectives in order to understand them in as complete a manner as possible. One of these ways of understanding systems is through phenomenology, which we will now explore in detail.

As Henri Bortoft explains in this lecture, phenomenology is not a form of introspection, it is a shift of attention from within experience. We can therefore think of phenomenology as a way in which we can expand and develop new ways of seeing. 

Phenomenology was first developed by Edmund Husserl (1859 – 1938) who developed this philosophy at the turn of the twentieth century. At the time, many people began to understand that what he was doing was revolutionary. The problem is that in our current modern age it can now be difficult to read his original writings, and to really understand just how extraordinary his achievements were.

In this lecture Henri focuses on the act of distinction. This is a central concept to understand, because it allows us to explore the way in which phenomena in the world appear to us as meaningful entities. By studying distinction, we are able to go deeper into the meaning and significance of phenomenology.

As Henri explains, he wrote Taking Appearance Seriously as an actual exercise in seeing. For this reason I am reproducing certain key extracts from this book to be read together alongside the lectures, which I hope will act as a guide for approaching a reading of the entire book.

Henri describes the act of distinction as “a movement from what is distinguished into the act of distinguishing”. This movement, which Henri explains through the notion of going upstream, enables us to stop thinking about distinction purely in terms of separate and discrete objects. When we think about distinguishing in these terms, we end up with separation.

In this first extract from Taking Appearances Seriously, Henri explains that we should not think of distinction in terms of the outcome, i.e. that which is distinguished. This turns distinction into separation:


“When we think of the act of distinction in terms of the outcome  — i.e. in terms of what is distinguished — we cannot avoid thinking of distinction only in terms of difference — that one thing is different from another — and the movement of thinking here is one which almost automatically turns distinction into separation.

So we come to think that ‘distinction’ and ‘separation’ are the same. But they are not. We can see that they are not the same by trying to go ‘upstream’ into the  act of distinction itself — which means going into the happening, the coming-into-being, which is the appearance of distinction. We could call this dynamical distinction the primary distinction, as opposed to  the secondary distinction which merely partitions and separates what has already been distinguished. When we go ‘upstream’ and try to `catch distinction in the act, we discover something fundamental which we overlook when we begin ‘downstream’ with what is distinguished.

When we shift our attention into the happening which is the appearing of distinction, we notice that distinction not only ‘differences, but that at the very same time it also relates.” It is when we focus only on the difference — as we do when our attention is focused on what is distinguished, the outcome, instead of the act itself — that we confuse distinction with separation.”   

Henri Bortoft, Taking Appearance Seriously, pp21-22


In this next section, Henri explains how the act of distinction is somewhat surprisingly holistic. The way in which we discover the holistic nature of the act of distinction is to go upstream into what he describes as the happening and appearance of distinction:


“We say that A is distinguished from B, or that X is distinguished from its surrounding (which thereby become the background against which X stands out as being X). We must remember here that we are describing the very act of distinction, and so we must not fall into the trap of thinking of A and B, or of X and its surroundings, as if they were already there as such, so that the ‘distinction’ would amount to no more than separating what is already distinguished — in which case we are already ‘too late’ in our thinking to catch the distinction `in the act. 

If A is distinguished from B, or X from not-X, then the very act of distinction which differences simultaneously relates — i.e. if A is distinguished from B, it is thereby concomitantly related to B by the very act which distinguishes it. 

Since this relation is intrinsic to the distinction, and not added afterwards, it is called an ‘internal relation. It is as if the act of distinction goes in opposite directions simultaneously. Distinguishing is a dual movement of thinking which goes in opposite directions at once: in one direction it differences, whereas in the other direction it relates. So the act of distinction `differences/relates’ — not differences and relates, because this would be two movements, whereas there is one movement which is dual. 

What comes into being as a distinction is therefore a difference/ relation and the act of distinction is a unitary act which {differences/ relates}. If the relation which is intrinsic to the distinction is not noticed, then the distinction can only turn into separation — which is what happens when our attention shifts from the distinguishing of what is distinguished to focus on what is distinguished. 

When this happens, so that distinction is thought of only in terms of separation, it seems that the act of distinction is just analytical. But when we follow the coming-into-being of distinction we recognise that it must also be holistic. This is not something we would have expected to find.”

Henri Bortoft, Taking Appearance Seriously, p22


In this lecture Henri discusses the famous duck/rabbit drawing, which David Bohm described as a “template for thinking”:


“It may be helpful to find an image for this simultaneity of what seem to be opposites, i.e. difference/relation and analytic/holistic. The biperspectival figure which is familiar from gestalt psychology may be useful here — the duck/rabbit for example.

Duck/Rabbit – from Holonomics: Business Where People and Planet Matter (2014)

As this is not duck and rabbit, but simultaneously duck/rabbit, so the act of distinction is simultaneously the analytic/holistic act of {differencing/relating}. By reflecting on such an auxiliary, we can see how it is not a case of partly one and partly the other, but of one which is simultaneously both.”

Henri Bortoft, Taking Appearance Seriously, p23


Henri then provides an active example of the act of distinction in the way in which scientific discoveries are made:


The happening of distinction is the appearing of what is distinguished. It is well-known that when something is first distinguished it soon appears to all who are able to see it, whereas previously it had not been seen by anyone, even though once it has been distinguished we feel it was there to be seen all along and we are astonished that nobody actually did see it. The medical disorder of muscular dystrophy provides an illustration of this. Before the 1850s, when this disease was first described (that is, distinguished) by the French neurologist Guillaume Duchenne, it had not been recognised by anyone. But, once distinguished, what had not been seen before began to be widely recognised, and by the 1860s many hundreds of cases had been seen and described. This prompted his contemporary Jean-Martin Charcot to comment: ‘How come that a disease so common, so widespread, and so recognisable at a glance — a disease which has always existed — how come that it is only recognised now? Why did we need M. Duchenne to open our eyes?’

Henri Bortoft, Taking Appearance Seriously, p23


Contemplating the simultaneous dual nature of duck/rabbit figure is important in order to understand how we can make the shift out of Cartesian thinking and shift into understanding the organic processes we find in living systems. This is a theme which we will continue to explore in future lectures.


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

3 responses to “The Foundations of Holonomics 3: The Act of Distinction

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

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

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