The Foundations of Holonomics 5: The Metamorphosis of Plants

The subject of this lecture is Goethe’s The Metamorphosis of Plants, first published in 1790, and which would come to revolutionise biological science in the nineteenth century due to the way in which Goethe’s observational practices allowed him to uncover the deeper dimensions of natural processes in plant ‘morphology’ – the science of organic forms and formative lawful forces.

Of all of Henri Bortoft’s lectures at Schumacher College, this is one of my favourite. The reason is that this is a complex lecture in which Henri is doing two different things simultaneously. The principal aim of the lecture is to study Goethe’s empirical and dynamic approach to studying the natural world. But secondly, this lecture also provides Henri with an opportunity to provide a working example of hermeneutics in practice.

Because Goethe’s scientific endeavours were far from orthodox, even in our own era, his writings are extremely difficult to understand. For this reason Henri works through the first four paragraphs of Goethe’s short treatise using the hermeneutical approach to understand the meaning within the text.

This hermeneutic exercise therefore allows us to pay attention to the language of these paragraphs in a different manner to which we would normally approach a text, one which leads us into Goethe’s ‘movement of thinking’, allowing us to see that which Goethe is describing. Hermeneutics therefore allows us to uncover the phenomena within a text. By reading the text carefully and following the flow and movement of language, we are therefore able to really ‘see’ the meaning that is there.

In these lectures Henri is drawing our attention to the way in which it is possible to explore the phenomenology of lived experience in a very direct way. This is not particularly easy to understand, since we are not accustomed to seeing the world in this manner. Once we have made the discovery that things appear to us, we are then able to experience the appearing of what appears.

Understanding appearance therefore is the heart of phenomenology. To use Henri’s terminology, this means going upstream from the appearance of a phenomena to the happening of the appearance. The reason so much emphasis is placed on understanding this core concept is that many things are then able to follow, such as deepening our understanding of language and perception. 

Photo: Simon Robinson

This lecture therefore builds on the previous lectures which explored the act of distinction. If we over look distinction we start our observations with the finished objects that we see. Goethe is difficult to understand because he did not start with an exploration of plants in their finished states. He developed an organic way of thinking which allowed him to enter into the dynamic processes he was observing in nature.

This is what is meant when Henri explains that Goethe started with the ‘coming-into-being’ of the phenomena he was investigating. To really understand this, we have to learn how to “think like a plant lives”:

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“Whenever Goethe is mentioned in connection with science, it is usually in the context of his work on colour, and especially his disagreement with Newton. Consequently his approach to science is presented from the outset as being controversial. But this tendency to focus on Goethe’s more controversial work has the unfortunate consequence of drawing attention away from his other, equally important work on metamorphosis in plants.

Although this work was quite radical at the time, it is certainly not controversial. It is in fact precisely what modern biology has discovered in its own way. What Goethe said about metamorphosis is confirmed today by developmental genetics.’ The puzzling thing is, as one professor of genetics put it to me, how Goethe could have got it so right over two hundred years ago without the resources of modern genetics. The answer is that he did it by learning `to think like a plant lives’ through the practice of active seeing and exact sensorial imagination.”

Henri Bortoft, Taking Appearance Seriously, p62

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Having discussed the background to Goethe’s way of science, Henri then moves on to explore The Metamorphosis of Plants.  I spent a week with Henri at Schumacher College in October 2009, just one month after the book had been republished by MIT Press as a new illustrated edition by Douglas Miller, with beautiful illustrations of plants at ever stage of growth that Goethe discusses, thereby totally transforming the reading experience.

Photo: Gordon Miller

The short book is written as 123 numbered paragraphs, and Henri begins with the first two paragraphs:

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“Goethe begins The Metamorphosis of Plants (1790) with the observation that:

Anyone who observes even a little the growth of plants will easily discover that certain of their external parts sometimes undergo a change and assume, either entirely, or in a greater or lesser degree, the form of the parts adjacent to them.

By ‘external parts’ he means the various organs growing from the stem of the plant. Firstly there are the vegetative leaves winding up the stem, and then the rings of organs comprising the flower: the sepals which contain the floral bud, and which open to reveal one or more rings of petals surrounding an inner ring(s) of stamens, all of which surround the central organs (pistil and ovary) at the end of the stem where reproduction takes place and seeds are formed (see Figure 2).

Image: Henri Bortoft, Taking Appearance Seriously

Goethe brings out what he means more clearly in his next observation:

So the simple flower, for example, often changes into a double one, if petals develop in the place of stamens and anthers. These petals may either perfectly resemble the other petals of the corolla, both in form and colour, or they may still retain visible signs of their origin.

An example of this is provided by the difference between the wild and the cultivated rose. The wild rose has a widely open flower with a single ring of petals, within which there are several rings of stamens. The cultivated rose, on the other hand, has a closed flower consisting of several rings of petals, within which there is a single ring of stamens. The difference in appearance is striking: on the one hand a simple flower opens to view, and on the other an enclosed flower which hides itself and has become a symbol of beauty and mystery.

The difference botanically is that rings of stamens in the wild rose have `metamorphosed’ into rings of petals. So where stamens should be, now there are petals — an example of what Goethe calls retrogressive metamorphosis, because here the plant takes a backward step with respect to its normal developmental sequence.”

Henri Bortoft, Taking Appearance Seriously, pp62-64

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In the third paragraph, we are better able to grasp the idea that Goethe is discussing the way in which there is one organ manifesting in different ways, and that the way in which we observe the plant can reveal this formative process to us:

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When we notice the fact that petals sometimes appear in the place of stamens, we may have the intuition that there is some kind of inner connection between petals and stamens. Organs which appear at first to be distinct and separate, now seem to belong together. But are there instances in the normal developmental sequence of the plant where we can recognise this ‘secret affinity, as Goethe puts it, between petals and stamens? There are indeed.

It is so evident in the white water lily, for example, that, when we recognise it, we could easily believe the idea had become ‘visible’ and that we are seeing it with our eyes. In this plant we find several intermediate stages between petals and stamens. Here again there are several successive rings of organs, with each ring showing a distinct intermediate form on the way from petal to stamen.

White water lily: Republished from Holonomics: Business Where People and Planet Matter

Several developmental stages can be seen simultaneously here, so that when we look at a waterlily the overall effect is that we seem to ‘see’ one organ turning gradually into another one. But this is not what is happening: a petal does not materially turn into a stamen. Rather, what we are seeing here is one organ manifesting in different forms, and not one organ turning into another one — i.e. no finished petal changes into a stamen. The metamorphosis is in the embryonic stage of plant growth and not at the adult stage.

Goethe expresses this as follows (referring specifically to the retrogressive case of petals in the place of stamens):

If we see that in this way it is possible for the plant to make a retrograde step and reverse the order of growth, we shall become all the more aware of the normal course of Nature, and shall learn to understand those laws of transformation by which she produces one part out of another and creates the most varied forms by the modification of one single organ.

Henri Bortoft, Taking Appearance Seriously, pp64-65

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Understanding Henri’s explanation of paragraph four is critical for our understanding the way in which hermeneutical analysis can reveal to us the true meaning of what Goethe was attempting to articulate. Note that when a new idea emerges, it is often extremely difficult to describe using the present day language without potentially being misunderstood:

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“Almost the first thing we notice here is the possible misunderstanding which this invites. Goethe begins by referring to the transformation that `produces one part out of another; which in the context could lead us to think that a stamen is produced out of a petal at the adult stage instead of in the embryonic growth form of the organ.

But he then goes on immediately to say that nature ‘creates the most varied forms by the modification of one single organ; which expresses the idea very clearly. All the organs appended to the stem of the plant are to be seen in this way — from the stem leaves through to the reproductive heart of the flower.’ So in the next paragraph Goethe considers, not just adjacent organs like petals and stamens, but all the organs as ‘modifications of one single organ’: 

The secret affinity between the various parts of the plants such as leaves, calyx [sepals], corolla [petals], and stamens, which are developed one after the other and as it were one out of the other, has long been recognised in a general way by naturalists; indeed much attention has been given to the study of it. The process by which one and the same organ presents itself to us in manifold forms has been called the metamorphosis of plants.

Here again, the first thing we notice is the suggestion that the successive organs are developed ‘one out of the other, which could be misleading if we took it to mean that an organ at the adult stage transformed physically into another one. Goethe certainly does not mean to say this, as we can see from the fact that he adds ‘as it were’ to qualify it. Immediately after this comes the clear statement that metamorphosis is ‘the process by which one and the same organ presents itself to us in manifold forms, which is completely different from the idea of one organ turning into another one.

It is the ability of the vegetative shoot to develop into different forms which leads to the diversity of organs, and not some miraculous ability on the part of a finished organ to change its form into a different organ. The metamorphosis is in the earlier embryonic stage of the coming-into-being of the organs, and not at the later adult stage of organs that are already finished. Goethe’s way of thinking is intrinsically dynamic: it goes back ‘upstream’ into the coming-into-being of the organs, instead of beginning ‘downstream’ with the organs that are already formed. Metamorphosis is only to be found in the coming-into-being, and the failure to realise this leads us to look in the wrong direction by trying to understand metamorphosis in a downstream way. This is the source of much of the misunderstanding about Goethe’s work.”

Henri Bortoft, Taking Appearance Seriously, pp65-66

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The end of this lecturer is particularly important, because many people writing about Goethe’s Metamorphosis of Plants have misunderstood the coming-into-being aspect of his approach. They have interpreted Goethe in a way which characterises his work as being about excluding differences to find the lowest common denominator, of what all plants have in common. This approach excludes the differences between plants. Goethe was not looking for “uniformities and commonalities” in nature. And neither was he looking for a “general plan” common to all organs.

As we have seen in these four short paragraphs, Goethe was not reducing all plants to what they had in common. This is a portrayal of nature as being “dead and finished”. Goethe had a dynamic way of thinking, which as Henri says, can be found in the first four paragraphs we have just studied.

In lecture six we will continue the exploration of The Metamorphosis of Plants by shifting away from the logic of solid bodies and into a holographic way of understanding the dynamic and living processes of the natural world.

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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

One response to “The Foundations of Holonomics 5: The Metamorphosis of Plants

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

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