The Foundations of Holonomics 6: Multiplicity within Unity

In this lecture we continue to explore Goethe’s Metamorphosis of Plants and reach a point whereby we will make a really quite remarkable discovery – one which will demonstrate that there is multiplicity within unity. As Henri discussed in the previous lecture, even many of the most well-known authorities on Goethe has not managed to understand this dynamic way of understanding organic processes found in nature, and so clearly this is one of the most difficult aspects of the Holonomics approach to grasp.

The reason is that when considering living systems, we have to follow Goethe’s movement of thinking which he described as “striving out of the whole into the parts”. It is important though here to understand the use of language and not separate the whole from the parts. As Henri explains, when we separate the whole from the parts it means that we have not properly understood the system. In this dynamic approach to wholeness, the parts are the enfolding of the whole. 

In this lecture Henri is therefore helping us to better understand what he means by upstream and downstream. These concepts are vitally important in our attempts to expand our consciousness in order to develop new ways of seeing and thinking about systems, including human organisations.

The challenge for us is in both science and management thinking we can often find the idea that unity is superior to multiplicity. Multiplicity is seen as lower. This is prejudice which has come from Western philosophy. However, certain readings of Plato such as the works of Henri, Hans-Georg Gadamer for example, show that he did not make this mistake.

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

It is for this reason that Maria and I take Plato’s transcendental conception of being as the starting point for our discussions of wholeness the Holonomics approach. When we have truly understood the principle of multiplicity within unity, it allows us to design powerfully different forms of communication, dialogue and interventions within an organisational context.

In Customer Experiences with Soul: A New Era in Design we provide an in-depth case study which utilised the dynamic conception of wholeness, including the principle of multiplicity within unity, to create a way for every single person at Hospital Sírio Libanês in São Paulo to come together to understand, discuss and develop its strategy for the coming five years.

Photo: Holonomics

Over the course of one week we ran one-hour sessions with up to 100 people each, training 2,500 people in total. People gathered in a reception area, and then in order to enter the main room, they walked through a ‘time tunnel” a short corridor which told the story of the hospital from 1921 to the present day.

People were able to select where to sit on one of ten tables, which had up to ten people each. Through gentle guidance, each table ended up with a wide mix of collaborators from every area and department in the hospital. The insight here is that each table can be thought of as a hologram of Hospital Sírio Libanês whereby the essence of the hospital is being expressed both through each group and also through every person.

We made no attempt to communicate the strategic map – very few people would have understood or related to it in this format. Instead we told the strategic map as a story which was laid out on tables which had up to ten people. Each story was so long that one person could only read a part. We had doctors and surgeons listening to secretaries and nutritionists tell the story of how the hospital aimed to get to 2020, and so the traditional hierarchies started to melt away into an experience of wholeness.

Credit: Holonomics

The way in which we therefore explore lived experience within the Holonomics approach therefore takes us into a deeper level of understanding of people’s mental models. This phenomenological approach can be combined with a hermeneutical approach to the understanding of a brand, and how a brand comes to presence in the parts.

Conventional business education does not include training in taking people into the lived experience of either the customer experience of products and services, and neither the lived experience of employees. Through the holonomic process we have developed, it is possible to evolve business leaders’ conception of their organisations to the point of understanding them as dynamic systems and authentic wholes. This is the point at which deeply transformative change can take place.

Our work with Hospital Sírio Libanês began with the creative insight that the intervention we were designing would need to demonstrate the principle of the self-differencing organ. Goethe’s descriptions of the process of the discovery of this principle can be found in Italian Journey. Henri helps us to understand Goethe’s thinking through reference to the story of Proteus:


Elsewhere, in letters and the diary of his Italian journey, he says that he is ‘becoming aware of the form with which again and again nature plays, and in playing brings forth manifold life’ and that ‘the thought becomes more and more living that it may be possible out of one form to develop all plant forms. Notice that he does not say the form with which nature plays again and again is nature’s model or ground plan of the plant, just as he does not say that he is trying to reduce all plant organs to one form.’ Yet again, on another occasion when referring to the organs of the plant, he says: ‘It had occurred to me that in the organ of the plant which we ordinarily designate as leaf the true Proteus is hidden, who can conceal and reveal himself in all forms. Reading what Goethe says, it is difficult not to get the sense that he is doing the very opposite of searching for what all the different organs have in common. He is talking about the creation of difference within unity, not arriving at unity by the exclusion of difference. The direction of his thinking is the other way round.

The reference to Proteus gives us an indication of the direction Goethe’s thinking takes. Proteus is the Greek God who can hide and reveal himself in any form he chooses. He can present himself in manifold forms, ever differently, and yet it is always Proteus. Now we would not try to understand Proteus by collecting together different manifestations and trying to see what they all have in common. Such a procedure would be far ‘too late. What is essential about Proteus is the coming-into-being, the appearing, and not the specific form in which he appears. The attempt to

find a common identity based on the different appearances could only result in an ‘average Proteus,’ which is an absurd notion that would only take us even further away from the ever-dynamic Proteus. So clearly, Goethe does not want us to look at the organs of the plant and find what they have in common, excluding all the ways in which they are different from one another and including only the ways in which they are the same, until at last we arrive at a kind of ‘average organ’ which is the common plan according to which they are all formed. It takes only a moment’s thought to realise that no real differences could ever be produced from such an ‘average organ,’ because it is reached by excluding all differences in the first place. It is a cul-de-sac.

So Goethe is not saying: begin with the finished organs as they are on the adult plant and then try to abstract a unity from them. If this were the case we could only end up with what they all have in common. For Goethe the organs in their finished state are already `downstream’, and to abstract from them only the unity of what they have in common is to go even further ‘downstream’. But Goethe goes in the opposite direction and tries to catch nature ‘in the act’ — i.e. `working and alive, striving out of the whole into the parts’. He goes back ‘upstream’ from the organs in their finished state, so that he doesn’t derive the unity from the diversity, instead he ‘brings the diversity back into the unity from which it originally went forth: In this way the movement of his thinking can follow the coming-into-being of the organs and end with them in their finished state.

Henri Bortoft, Taking Appearance Seriously, p68-69


We have now reached a point whereby we can understand the notion of the self-differencing organ. In order to do so we have to move away from the logic of solid bodies. We have to learn to think within the dimension of one. As Henri explains in the lecture, this is an extraordinary idea:


If one and the same organ presents itself to us in different forms, then each organ is that organ, but differently, and not another organ — Proteus is always one and the same Proteus, but differently, and not another Proteus. It is always the very same one and not another one, and yet it is always becoming different from itself. It becomes other without becoming another — the other of itself and not another one.

Goethe’s ‘one and the same organ’ manifesting as different forms is a self-differencing organ producing differences of itself. So the different organs we see are the self-differences of one organ. What we discover here is the extraordinary idea of self-difference instead of self-sameness, the idea that something can become different from itself whilst remaining itself instead of becoming something else. 

When we go upstream into the coming-into-being we discover the self-differencing organ which appears downstream as several different organs — to borrow from Gilles Deleuze, we find ‘there is other without there being several’. So we find that the unity of coming-into-being is the dynamic unity of self-differencing, in which difference is intrinsic to unity. Here the unity is the very dynamics of self-differencing.

There is no separation here (if we find it in our thinking, it is because we have ‘fallen downstream’ without noticing): the self-differencing is the unity and concomitantly the unity is the self-differencing. This dynamic unity is evidently the very opposite of the unity of the finished products, which is the static unity of self-sameness that is reached by the exclusion of difference.

Henri Bortoft, Taking Appearance Seriously, p71


We can describe the movement of thinking which takes us into self-difference as intensive, as opposed to extensive thinking which is the way in which we normally thinking about our three-dimensional world of solid bodies. We can better understand this by thinking about the workings of holograms:


When one thing is different from another thing, the distinction is extensive; but when something is different from itself the distinction is intensive.’ What this means will become clearer with the example provided by the hologram. If we have a transmission hologram on a glass plate — let us say of a horse galloping towards us — what would we expect to find if we divided the plate physically into two halves?

If we had a photographic plate instead of a hologram, we know what the answer would be: two halves of the plate with half the horse on one and the other half on the other. What is surprising about hologram division is that we would find the whole horse on each of the two halves of the plate.” We can divide the photographic plate but not the hologram of the horse. The contrast with a photograph is striking: if we want another photograph we have to make a copy of the first one, and then there will be two photographs — one and another one. But there cannot be ‘two’ holograms here — even though it looks like there are physically — because this does not take into account the optical indivisibility of the hologram, whereby the attempt to divide it results in the whole again

instead of two halves. If we now ask how many there are, what can we say? We cannot say there are two, because this would be no different from the case of photographic reproduction, where there clearly are two (one and another one). In the case of the hologram it seems that each is the same one — one and the other of itself instead of one and another one. In a sense there is only one and not two, yet clearly not in a numerical sense because then we would be unable to distinguish this case from the original hologram before it was divided.

The division of the hologram is intensive because it remains whole when divided, and consequently the distinction between the ‘two’ which are one and the very same one (one and the other of itself) is an intensive distinction. We can call this ‘multiplicity in unity’. The division of the photograph, on the other hand, is an extensive division because it results in two halves. Copying the photograph is also extensive, because the result is `one and another one’ and not ‘one and the other of itself’.

Henri Bortoft, Taking Appearance Seriously, p71-72


A hologram is a static object, as opposed to a living and dynamic plant. However, it is the principle of multiplicity in unity that can take us into the self-differencing organ and the self-differencing plant:


This difference can also be seen in the vegetative reproduction of plants. When a gardener propagates a plant by taking cuttings, what is happening organically is similar to what is happening optically when a hologram is divided in the manner described above. For example, if a leaf is taken from a fuchsia plant, and divided into several pieces, each of which is then planted separately, eventually these cuttings will grown into adult fuchsia plants. So where we had a single plant to begin with, there will now be several plants, which can be separated and moved to different locations as if they were simply physical objects. But organically there is only One plant here, because each is the very same one and not another one. Like the hologram, the plant is divisible and yet remains whole — so that it is really ‘indivisible’ in a subtle sense. Organically each one is the very same plant, so where there appear to be many plants there is really One plant which is prior to separation. The plant has become multiple without becoming many plants — even though this is how it seems to us when we count the plants, because when we do we count them as physical objects. The difference is between the non-numerical multiplicity of ‘multiplicity in unity’ and the numerical multiplicity of many ones. This must be an intensive multiplicity otherwise the unity would fragment.

So here we have a unity which includes multiplicity within it without being divided — and thereby ceasing to be unity. Extensively we can have either one or many — one only or many ones — but intensively we can have one and many at the very same time because the one is many. The difference here is that the one can be multiple intensively without being many extensively. Such a ‘multiplicity in unity’ constitutes an intensive dimension of One, as distinct from the extensive dimension of many ones.

In what follows we shall use an initial capital letter in this way to donate the ‘one’ which is intensively ‘multiplicity in unity, and a lower case letter to donate the ‘one’ which is extensively one of ‘many ones. Thus, in vegetative propagation there is One plant organically where we see many plants. So the unity of coming-into-being, which is the dynamical unity of self-differencing, produces ‘multiplicity in unity’ which is an intensive dimension of One.

Henri Bortoft, Taking Appearance Seriously, p71-72


The Holonomics approach to profound organisational change is powerful because of the way in which it does not just impact on people’s thinking, but also on their way of seeing, which therefore changes the way of experiencing the world. There is a subtle shift from focusing on our experience of separation from others and from nature, to one of experiencing unity and wholeness. But within this experience of unity, we do not lose our sense of our identity and our differences.

When we think of people as expressing the whole, as opposed to attempting to impose a whole on people in a top-down manner, then we are working in a way which understands systems as living, dynamic and alive, always coming-into-being, maintaining our openness to always being alert to that which is emerging, new, creative and life-enhancening.


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 6: Multiplicity within Unity

  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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