The Foundations of Holonomics 4: Going Upstream

This lecture builds on lecture 2 and lecture 3 by exploring the concept of being. The contemplation of being should not be seen as a purely academic exercise with little practical worth. Far from it. When we contemplate the notion of being, what something is, we are able make many discoveries about how we ourselves understand the world, and from these insights we can develop a deeper understanding of how it that the world is able to appear to us the way in which it does.

The lecture starts with the observation about the troublesome nature of the word being in English. Many languages such as French, German, Portuguese and Latin have two verbs – “the thing which is, and the to be of the thing which is” as Henri puts it.

The German philosopher Martin Heidegger suggested that we use being and Being in English. However, his works such as Being and Time have been extremely difficult to understand, especially since in certain uses “being means appearing”. Or in other words, that which appears is meaning.

While this may be difficult to grasp initially, this foundational series of lectures in Holonomics has been created to help take us into a way of seeing where it becomes possible to grasp what is being meant here. In this lecture Henri makes an interesting observation about the fact that he rarely refers to the notion of consciousness:

“I don’t think about being and I don’t think about consciousness. I just think about appearance. The seeing of what is seen.” 

Henri reads an extract from Taking Appearance Seriously and it is here we we see a central concept, that of coming-into-being:


“It looks like we create what at the same time we seem to discover, and this seems paradoxical. But McGilchrist points to an earlier tradition in the history of philosophy (which Heidegger has retrieved) for which ‘the act of creation may be … one of discovery, of finding something that was there, but required liberation into being:” In such a case, where discovery means freeing the entity into appearance, we are `finding something which is coming into being through our knowing, at the same time that our knowing depends on its coming into being’. `Coming into being’ here means ‘appearing.” This is why Heidegger says:

“Being means appearing. Appearing is not something subsequent that sometimes happens to being. Being presences as appearing.”

This is astonishing — and very easily misunderstood. It removes the separation between being and appearance which is so familiar in the metaphysical tradition. There is no longer the dichotomy of being and appearance which is the ultimate dualism, and ‘the curse of mereness’ is lifted from appearance.”

Henri Bortoft, Taking Appearance Seriously, p27


What is happening here is that we are starting to develop a sense of two different ways to think about meaning. Normally we think of meaning in relation to the meaning of what is seen. But we can also now think about meaning “in the sense of the meaning which is what is seen” (Taking Appearance Seriously, p180, footnote 21). This is why the phenomenological approach is so powerful in helping us to develop new ways of seeing, because it helps us to think about seeing in relation to meaning and why it is that we experience a meaningful world in which we inhabit.

We have now discussed the act of distinction and also the coming-into-being of phenomena. In order to help us really understand what these concepts mean, Henri draws upon the historical scientific discovery of Luke Howard’s classification of clouds, an achievement which had eluded all who had previously tried to make sense of what they were observing in the skies above, including Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (whose phenomenological approach to scientific observation we will be exploring in later lectures):


“When Goethe read a translation of Luke Howard’s seminal essay On the Modification of Clouds, he said that Howard was ‘the man who distinguished cloud from cloud, and he wrote a poem in his honour in which he said Howard had `Defin’d the doubtful, fix’d its limit-line, and named it fitly: It may seem extraordinary to us today that Howard’s simple classification of cloud formations — cirrus, cumulus, stratus — could be the source of so much scientific excitement and widespread admiration.

Image: Thomas Ignatius Maria Forster, retrieved from the UC San Diego Library

At the time it was quickly recognised that Howard had opened the door (which others had also sought and failed to find) to the scientific study of meteorology, but now we would look upon this as if he had done no more than impose a system of classification simply by applying labels externally to the superficial appearances of the clouds. But this is because we begin ‘downstream’ with the end result, the system of names, instead of going ‘upstream’ into the process of discovery to glimpse the coming-into-being of the distinction of which these names are the expression.”

How could anyone find a natural order in the ever-changing phenomena of the clouds? The very idea of finding anything fixed and constant in such fluid and impermanent phenomena seems at first absurd. Yet Howard was able to discern the hidden dynamics of the clouds, and thereby distinguish three fundamental cloud types which he said are ‘as distinguishable from each other as a tree from a hill, or the latter from a lake.

He was able to show that the teeming myriads of cloud formations are all modifications of only three types (where we might have expected to find a multitude, or even none at all) forming and transforming into one another according to the atmospheric conditions. As Goethe and others recognised, Howard distinguished the cloud formations, not in the sense of classifying them according to secondary characteristics, but in a unitary act of {differencing/relating} in which the types are seen as simultaneously different from and related to one another.

We could say that, in both senses, Howard articulated the clouds, because distinguishing and naming are two sides of the same coin. This example shows clearly that the act of distinction is simultaneously analytic and holistic. Although when we begin at the end it seems to result in no more than a division into separate categories — difference ‘falls apart’ into separation — when we try to catch distinction `in the act’ we find that it is not divisive but holistic. Thus, when he `distinguished cloud from cloud, Howard simultaneously revealed the dynamic wholeness of the phenomenon — as Goethe clearly recognised.”

Henri Bortoft, Taking Appearance Seriously, pp20-21


In Identity and Difference (1969), one of Heidegger’s later works published after Being and Time, we find the notion of belonging together which can help us understand more clearly the thought process behind Howard’s remarkable discovery:


“Heidegger’s distinction between belonging together and belonging together is helpful here.’ In the first case the belonging is primary and determines the together, whereas is the second case it is the together which determines the belonging. Thus, in the latter case, we bring things together, or put them together, and say that now they belong with one another because we have togethered them.

But in the case of belonging together it is the other way round. Here things already belong with one another and this belongingness determines their togetherness. We can now begin to appreciate the difference. Belonging together is subtle, and if we do not become aware of the way in which things already belong, then we may try to make them belong by togethering them — i.e. by imposing a framework which organises them. Since this will not be sensitive to the more subtle way in which things already belong together, the organisational framework that brings them together can only be imposed externally and not be intrinsic. Hence it is coarse.

The wholeness of the system is basically that of a framework which organises by togethering, and which all too often eclipses the more subtle wholeness of belongingness. In terms of Heidegger’s distinction, we could say that Howard revealed the belonging together of the clouds, instead of trying to make them belong together by imposing an external system of classification. This is the distinction between authentic and counterfeit wholeness.”

Henri Bortoft, Taking Appearance Seriously, p21


In lecture 2.2, our lived experience of wholeness, I introduced the Holonomic Circle, the tool which Maria and I present in Customer Experiences with Soul: A New Era in Design. The word ‘soul’ means many different things to many different people. We have used the word soul to describe the qualities of soul within an organisational context. The circle therefore helps people to explore these qualities from multiple perspectives, leading them to explore the experiences which people have with their people, products, services and brands in new ways and at a deeper level.

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

In order to help people better understand the steps needed towards developing customer experiences with soul, we structured the circle with three concentric rings.

Any business, brand or organisation needs to begin with the trinity of authenticity (the inner circle). They then need to focus on tools and techniques, the practical aspects of that which they are creating, such as focusing on human values, the quality of relationships, making things meaningful, systemic solutions and using the most appropriate methodologies.

They then need to think about the transcendental aspects of their creations, and this means thinking about higher qualities such as truth, goodness, beauty, identity, justice and wholeness. All of these qualities should not be thought of as separate aspects to a soulful experience. All of these qualities are inter-related, hence us locating them inside circles to represent the fact that they are all aspects of one single essence, one which we refer to as soul.

The notion of Being (as this lecture series has been exploring), appears in the transcendentals of the Holonomic Circle, and so we are now able to appreciate this dimension of experience, encapsulating the dynamic conception of wholeness, and including Heidegger’s observations on identity and difference.

We also see that the middle circle includes meditations on meaning and relationships. We can now see how it interesting it is to reflect on both the quality of our relationships and also the way in which things belong together. All aspects within the Holonomic Circle are inter-related and invite us to explore the qualities of soul, the essence of things in ever more insightful ways.

Management theory and practice often includes very simple tools and frameworks to describe quite complex phenomena. One of the most common is the 2×2 matrix, and this type of framework while often providing useful insights, can hinder more than help people’s critical thinking due to the way in which it reduces phenomena into separate and fragemented conceptual entities with no space for overlap, ambiguity or meaningful relationships.

Why is it that in the Holonomic Circle we position being at the very top within the transcendentals? Because ultimately, it is possible to arrive, through contemplation (going upstream into the seeing of what is seen), that there are no purely independent existences:


There can be no such thing as an entity that is absolutely independent, being what it is solely in terms of itself, without any relation to what is other than itself. Every distinction, in order to be a distinction, is necessarily a unitary act of differencing/relating — it is one `movement’ which goes in opposite directions simultaneously. Thus difference without relation is actually unthinkable, although we usually don’t notice this and fall into the error of believing that we can think of distinction as just difference, because we begin at the end with what is distinguished instead of with the act of distinction itself.

In this case we can appear to have a distinction which does not entail a relation because it is already ‘too late’; what we are thinking of as a distinction is in fact the separation of what is already distinguished. A distinction which did not entail a relation would be an absolute distinction. Hegel points out that such an absolute distinction would be self-contradictory. Because it would not entail a relation we could not say what it distinguished. By annihilating the relation implied in the distinction it would annihilate the distinction itself. Thus an absolute distinction would not be a distinction at all.”

Of course, we often do think of things as if they were separate and independent existences, and as an approximation it may often be admissible and useful to do so. The problem comes when we fail to remember that this is only an abstraction, and that in the concrete situation there are no such separate and independent existences.

The fundamental relations which any entity has to other entities are sometimes said to be internal to that entity — i.e. other entities enter into the very constitution of ‘what it is’ — instead of being external to it as they would be if entities existed separately and independently. In other words, any entity is what it is only within a network of relations. So instead of being an atomic existence it is in fact holistic. When we think materialistically of the world as being ‘made up’ of separate and independent entities, which are like building blocks, then we really have got it backwards:

“The attempt to rationally reconstruct the world out of a collocation of ‘bits’ contingently related to one another is as futile as the attempt to appreciate a symphony by sounding each note in isolation and then imagining a relation among them.” 

(From Charles B. Guignon, Heidegger and the Problem of Knowledge).

These separate ‘building blocks’ only seem to be such when we begin `downstream, whereas when we go ‘upstream’ we discover that the world is intrinsically holistic. So the question becomes, not how do entities which are separate and independent become related to one another, but how does it seem that there are such separate and independent entities in the first place? We find the answer when we go `upstream’ into the primary act of distinction, where we discover that relation is intrinsic to distinction, and that things only appear to be separate and independent when attention is focused ‘downstream’ on what is distinguished.”

Henri Bortoft, Taking Appearance Seriously, pp26-27


At the end of the lecture Henri reflects on the nature of science, how it compares with phenomenology, and the fact that there is not one single science, but a number of sciences, all of which have a “family resemblance”. For me, phenomenology is not to be contrasted as separate from science, but an approach to science which at the same time can also help reveal to us the nature of scientific insights as well as some of the blindspots of being stuck in one form of thinking or analysis.

We shall see this in practice in the next lecture with Henri’s hermeneutical analysis of Goethe’s phenomenological approach to science, one which can help return us to a way of experiencing nature as perceptive, alive and whole.


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 4: Going Upstream

  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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