The Foundations of Holonomics 8: Goethe’s Italian Journey

At this stage in this series of articles and lectures on the foundations of Holonomics, I thought that it would be useful to reflect on our journey so far, and to summarise the movement in thinking that we have been developing.

Photo: Simon Robinson

We started lecture one by exploring the dynamic way of thinking. In this lecture, Henri Bortoft explained how the dynamic way of thinking first appears in European thought at the beginning of the nineteenth century with Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and the early Romantics. This lecture reached a surprising conclusion that within certain approaches to understanding systems holistically, there is a potential trap of falling into “totalitarianism” in cases where the whole is somehow conceived as separate, elevated and superior to the parts in a system.

In lecture two, part one, Henri talked about his time working with the physicist David Bohm, where he explored the problem of wholeness in quantum physics. In order to understand the relationship between the parts and the whole in systems, Bohm believed that the hologram, a new invention at the time, could provide a “template for thinking”. This phrase is important since we are not to think of all systems as holograms, but rather understand the way in which each part of a holographic plate contains information about the whole object. Thus instead of localised parts, with the hologram the whole is present in each part and each part is distributed throughout the whole.

Lecture two, part two then examined the notion of lived experience, referencing Ingrid Stefanovic’s photographic studies of Victoria, British Columbia, in which she found a ‘resonance of the whole sense of place within the perspective of each individual photograph’. This example introduced us to an instance of the concept of the whole coming-to-presence within the parts.

Photo: Simon Robinson

Lecture three then took us much deeper into understand the relationships between parts and wholes in systems by focusing 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. Lecture four continued with this theme by then introducing the concept of going upstream, which means going into the seeing of those objects which we see, as opposed to simply focusing on that which we see. When we go `upstream’ into the primary act of distinction, we discover that relation is intrinsic to distinction, and that things only appear to be separate and independent when our attention is focused ‘downstream’ on that which is is distinguished.

Photo: Simon Robinson

This then brought us to lecture five in which we were introduced to Goethe’s Metamorphosis of Plants. Goethe developed one particular approach to the study of the natural world which can be seen as complementary to the more predominant quantitative methodologies we commonly recognise as science. Studying Goethe’s thought processes and his observational methods is extremely powerful because we are not accustomed to seeing the world in this phenomenological manner. This lecture is helping us to reach the insight and discovery that things appear to us, in order that we are then able to experience the appearing of what appears.

Living organic plants are not like static holograms. For this reason lecture six builds on Bohm’s notion of the hologram as a template for thinking by taking us into an understanding of multiplicity within unity. We find this principle in the natural world vegetative propagation where there is One plant organically, but where we are also, at one and the same time, able to see many plants.

Photo: Simon Robinson

Our examination of Goethe’s Metamorphosis of Plants also referenced Goethe’s Italian Journey. This is one of the most incredible travel journals written, because within its pages we Goethe describes not only his insights and inspirations, but also the gradual unfolding of his ideas as they become more lucid and clear to him along his way. His ideas did not reach him in one single eureka moments, they were the result of his continual way of observing the world in which he always maintained his dynamic way of seeing.

Intellectually, what I am writing is quite difficult to grasp, and as we shall see, Goethe, one of the world’s greatest writers, was himself extremely aware of the limitations of language. But if we are to understand this dynamic approach to understanding wholeness and living systems, joining Goethe on his travels through Italy becomes utterly essential.

Tischbein's Portrait of Goethe: Wikipedia

Tischbein’s Portrait of Goethe: Wikipedia

Goethe had achieved great fame as a poet and author in his twenties, but in 1775 at the age of 26 he escaped to Weimar, at the request of the extremely young eighteen-year old Duke and Duchess, where he took up duties as a civil servant, at times having responsibility for mines, the War Department, and state finances. By 1786, as we are told by the translators, Goethe was on the brink of a nervous breakdown, and so stealing himself away in the dead of night, he followed his dream to tour Italy, escaping to improve his painting, and to steep himself in a study of classical architecture, sculpture, and painting.

Goethe's sketch of Mount Etna

Goethe’s sketch of Mount Etna

When reading Goethe is it possible to discover his way of observing the world. In this journey not only does Goethe contemplate the arts, but at each and every moment he is observing the changing landscapes not just with the eyes of an artist, but through the eyes of a highly accomplished scientist. In this journey for example we discover just how much Goethe delights in his study of mineralogy and geology.

Very early on Goethe states his desire to stay within sensory experience during his journey:

I console myself with the thought that, in our statistically minded times, all this has probably already been printed in books which one can consult if need arise. At present I am preoccupied with sense-impressions to which no book or picture can do justice. The truth is that, in putting my powers of observation to the test, I have found a new interest in life. How far will my scientific and general knowledge take me? Can I learn to look at things with clear, fresh eyes? How much can I take in in a single glance? Can the grooves of old mental habits be effaced?

For someone whose fame arose from his writings, As I previously mentioned, Goethe is well-acquainted with the limitations of language:

One may say what one likes about the written or the spoken word, but there are very few occasions when it suffices. It certainly cannot communicate the unique character of any experience, not even in matters of mind.

For Goethe, his desire to improve his artistic skills through lessons in Italy from some of the great artists of this era is driven by his idea to understand phenomena as a whole:

The artists like giving me lessons because I am quick to understand. But understanding is not the same as doing. Quickness of understanding is a mental faculty, but right doing requires the practice of a lifetime. However, feeble as his efforts may be, the amateur should not despair. The few lines I draw on the paper, often too hasty and seldom exact, help me to a better comprehension of physical objects. The more closely and precisely one observes particulars, the sooner one arrives at a perception of the whole.

We can make a little more sense from Goethe’s approach to the study of phenomena, be they art or natural, by thinking about the four ways of knowing:

Credit: Holonomics

Goethe is consciously and mindfully starting his observations in the sensing realm. Here he describes his thoughts having visited Sicily:

My old habit of sticking to the objective and concrete has given me an ability to read things at sight, so to speak, and I am happy to think that I now carry in my soul a picture of Sicily, that unique and beautiful island, which is clear, authentic and complete.

Goethe uses these same powers of observation to observe the dynamic processes found in nature.

Photo: Simon Robinson

It is on his Italian journey that he develops what will become his theory of the metamorphosis of plants, a theory which although will be ignored by the majority of scientists and philosophers, will nonetheless inspire Charles Darwin in the following decades:

I am on the way to establishing important new relations and discovering the manner in which Nature, with incomparable power, develops the greatest complexity from the simple.

Goethe was far ahead of his time in relation to discovering insights about dynamic processes in nature through his deep powers of observation. I highlight the word dynamic here since in this scientific era, the social order was one of stability. Religion dominated the social order, and nature was seen as stable. But here we see Goethe with a determination to master his skills in concrete observation, and see what is actually in front of his eyes, rather than allowing social norms to hijack his thinking process.

Vesuvius in Eruption, with a View over the Islands in the Bay of Naples c. 1776-80. Credit: Tate, London 2013

Vesuvius in Eruption, with a View over the Islands in the Bay of Naples c. 1776-80. Credit: Tate, London 2013

As Goethe continues on his travels, his way of seeing deepens profoundly. However, he first acknowledges that this is a huge undertaking:

My botanical insights are taking me further and further. My basic hypothesis remains the same, but to work everything out would take a lifetime. One day, perhaps, I will be capable of giving a general outline.

It is clear how much the nature Goethe finds in Italy inspired him:

What I have always said has been confirmed: there are certain natural phenomena and certain confused ideas which can be understood and straightened out only in this country.

In this example, one of Goethe’s great insights comes to him as he takes a pleasant evening walk:

Suddenly I had a flash of insight concerning my botanical ideas. Please tell Herder that I am very near to discovering the secret of the Primal Plant. I am only afraid that no one will recognise it in the rest of the plant world. My famous theory about the cotyledons has now been so elaborated that it would be difficult to take it any further.

What Goethe is attempting to do is to understand the dynamics of the plant in itself, without recourse to an intellectual framework or theory. He is moving from concrete observation directly to intuitive insight, hence his concern that his notion of the plant will not be understood. One day he takes a walk to attempt to meditate on the meaning of the epics dreams he has been experiencing, but while doing so is seized by what he calls another spirit which has been haunting him those last few days:

Here where, instead of being grown in pots or under glass as they are with us, plants are allowed to grow freely in the open fresh air and fulfil their natural destiny, they become more intelligible. Seeing such a variety of new and renewed forms, my old fancy suddenly came back to my mind: Among this multitude might I not discover the Primal Plant? There certainly must be one. Otherwise, how could I recognise that this or that form was a plant if all were not built upon the same basic model?

Goethe develops this theme in his letters a few days later:

The Primal Plant is going to be the strangest creature in the world, which Nature herself shall envy me. With this model and the key to it, it will be possible to go on for ever inventing plants and know that their existence i slogical; that is to say, if they do not actually exist, they could, for they are not the shadowy phantoms of a vain imagination, but possess an inner necessity and truth. The same law will be applicable to all other living organisms.

Goethe is understanding the coming-into-being of the plant, and is perceiving the intrinsic and dynamic dimension of nature which is only accessible via our intuition. Note the use of the word intuition here which is not being used in the sense of the feeling about something. Goethe is attempting to articulate the fact that he is comprehending a real phenomena and not just one that is subjective and which he is imagining. This is a radically different approach to understanding phenomena in nature, and which leads Goethe to an encounter with the wholeness of nature:

As soon as one sees with one’s own eyes the whole which one has hitherto only known in fragments and chaotically, a new life begins.

His observational approach also led him to discard old patterns of thinking, something which is easy to discuss but which in practice is incredibly hard to achieve:

The rebirth which is transforming me from within continues. Though I expected really to learn something here, I never thought I should have to start at the bottom of the school and have to learn or completely relearn so much. But now I have realised this and accepted it, I find the more I give up my old habits of thought, the happier I am.

Goethe’s writing in Italian Journey is insightful, poetic, contemporary and descriptive, taking us internally, via the senses, into his intuitive perception.

Photo: Emma Kidd

In her book First Steps to Seeing, Emma Kidd writes that “once our mind has defined what we are experiencing, we often stop paying attention to how our senses are experiencing it. This redirection of attention, from our experience of life to the idea in our mind, has the effect of of creating an invisible barrier between us and the world”.

Those of us who are working with the dynamic way of seeing often have a desire to help take people who have not previously been exposed to this approach to observation, perception and consciousness, one specific audience being corporate executives and those with leadership roles within organisations. Staring by exploring the metamorphosis of plants and discussing organic and living processes may often not produce the transition of consciousness we may have desired, and that is because the time available with senior executives is normally quite limited.

Credit: Holonomics

However, one way in which we can provide a rapid experience of the coming-into-being of phenomena is through Goethe’s theory of colours, and that is where we shall return to in the next lecture.

One response to “The Foundations of Holonomics 8: Goethe’s Italian Journey

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

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