The Foundations of Holonomics 10: Goethe’s Theory of Colours

In this series on the foundations of Holonomics we have been discussing the notion of ‘phenomena’ in relation to the manner in which we experience the world and the relationship between experience, perception and how we think about the world. We will now make the shift from intellectual investigation into an active way of exploring the world, an exercise which will help us experience the notion of a phenomenon directly.

Photo: Simon Robinson

The reason why Goethe’s Theory of Colour plays a prominent role in the Holonomics approach is that by actually carrying out these experiments with both our MBA students and also business executives, Maria and I have found that people are better able to explore the way in which scientific thinking impacts on the way in which they consider the natural world, and the extent in which our intellectual minds dominate over the other ways of knowing: sensing, feeling and intuition.

Credit: Holonomics

By breaking out of our of abstract and symbolic thought, we are able to see and understand more of what is around us, enabling us to inhabit once again a vibrant living organic world, making us more open to new ideas, ones which may not necessarily fit our pre-conceptions of the world, thus allowing us to develop a more creative and constructive relationship with nature, our technology, and of course with other people with who we connect in our daily lives.

Breaking out of our customary patterns of thinking is by no means an easy exercise, especially as we can often be caught in a comfort zone which can stop us from really making the necessary effort needed to help us reach an expanded level of consciousness and therefore an awareness of the different ways in which people can experience reality. The modern Western model of education rarely provides the space for an exploration of how we come to explain the phenomena in the world which we experience, and this can therefore prevent us from even being aware of the different modes and forms of explanation.

Credit: Holonomics

One of the most powerful and provocative ways in which we can explore this dynamic interplay of explanation and experience is to compare Goethe’s Theory of Colour with Newton’s explanation of light. In this lecture Henri Bortoft takes students through the original experiments which were developed by Goethe, thereby taking us into his way of doing science, one which allows people to experience the very phenomenon under discussion.

These experiments are described in Henri’s first book, The Wholeness of Nature, and also in our book Holonomics: Business Where People and Planet Matter. In this lecture Henri also refers to Heinrich Proskauer’s now out-of-print The Rediscovery of Colour, which came as a boxed set with a prism and discovery cards.

Photo: Simon Robinson

Unfortunately the only remaining second-hand copies of this book are prohibitively expensive, and so to help people explore the full range of colour experiments I produced this slide deck which contains each configuration of colours and boundaries.

The reason I placed boundary in italics is that it may not immediately be obvious what this is referring to. An additional challenge in these lectures just being audio is that it is not possible to see how to actually carry out the experiments.

Maria and I are extremely grateful to one of our clients who have given us permission to share photographs from a leadership workshop where we explored the Theory of Colours with their team of senior executives. These photographs enable you to see how these experiments and for this reason we are particularly grateful as I believe their are the only ones of their kind to have been published which show the experiments in this manner.

Reproduced with permission

In this first image, you can see how you will also need pieces of black and white card. If this is not ready to hand, you can look through the prism at the set of slides I produced. When henry talks about the boundary between black and white, or light and dark, he is referring to that line where the black piece of card meets the white piece of card. You can see how this person is holding the prism and looking through it to see what happens at the boundary.

Photo: Holonomics

In this second photograph and can see the distances between the boundary and the prism, and also the prism and the person’s head.

It can take some time to work out which face of the prism you need to look through to see what happens. For this reason I took this photograph of myself looking through a prism at a boundary on my computer screen. I am looking downwards into the prism.

This is a photograph which shows that certain colours appear at the boundaries between black and white.

It is these spectral colours which you will be looking for as you carry out the experiments.

One of the most important points to know before exploring Goethe’s Theory of Colours is to understand that Goethe’s first writings on colour were published in 1792 -(“Contributions to Optics”) and it is these writings which form the basis of these experiments. He then would write further write about colour in 1810, published as “The Theory of Colours”.

As Henri wrote in footnote 53, p190 of Taking Appearance Seriously, “Goethe’s motive was to understand the qualities of colour, and hence his science of colour is the science of these qualities as such. Newton’s motive, on the other hand was to eliminate unwanted colour in optical instruments. This is really a branch of mathematical-instrumental optics and does not require us to enter into the experience of colour. Contrary to what is often said, there is no disagreement between Goethe and Newton once the context of the motivation is taken into account. Goethe himself eventually came to understand this, but unfortunately others were less comprehensive in their understanding”.

So as I highlighted in my opening comments, Goethe is interested in a different form of explanation to help understand the phenomenon of colour, as opposed to Newton’s traditional scientific method for explaining the optics of light. The more ways we have at our disposition to explore the world, the more we can understand about our place in the world, and also the more we can become aware of the explanations that other people have of their experiences of the world.

Below is a single key extract from Taking Appearance Seriously in which Henri explains Goethe’s phenomenological approach to science. As we carry out the exact same experiments, and come to develop an ability to experience phenomena directly, we come to be able to expand our consciousness, experience phenomena in their wholeness, and therefore  reduce the experience of separation of ourselves with nature, with others and with the world we inhabit.


We tend to rely for the most part on the verbal-intellectual mode of apprehension, because this is what is developed through education in modern western culture. The verbal-intellectual mind functions in terms of abstract generalities that take us away from the richness and diversity of sensory experience — this is both its strength and its weakness. It is focused on what is the same in things, their commonality, so that even without our realising it we become immersed in uniformity and cease to notice differences. For example, if there are two leaves of a tree, as a matter of habit we will tend to see them in a general way as just ‘leaves’ and overlook the differences between them. This is a consequence of what psychologists call the process of automatisation or habituation. The normal learning sequence goes from the sensory experience of concrete cases to the abstract generalisation.

Thus, in the case of the leaves, whereas to begin with we might see each leaf concretely in detail, we eventually replace this with the mental abstraction ‘leaf. When this happens our attention is transferred from the sensory experience to the abstract category, so much so that, without our being aware of it, we begin to experience the category more than we do the concrete instance. When this stage is reached what we ‘experience’ is only an abstraction triggered by the sensory encounter, and not the concrete case itself. This stage of automatisation, where we experience the category and not the actual occurrence, is demonstrated very clearly in the well-known anomalous playing card experiment.”

Goethe’s way of thinking goes in the opposite direction to this learning sequence — which, incidentally, is necessary for coping with our daily lives. He redirects attention into the experience of the senses, and in doing so he thereby withdraws it from the verbal-intellectual mind. There is no question here of trying to ‘stop’ the verbal-intellectual mind which works with abstractions — any attempt to do so would have just the opposite effect.

By practising active seeing (which means directing attention into the sensory, instead of just passively experiencing a sense impression), the verbal-intellectual mind is ‘suspended, so that attention is brought back into the phenomenon itself instead of being trapped in verbal-intellectual generalities. Goethe puts the phenomenon at the centre of attention and he keeps it there (it’s hard work because it reverses the habitual direction of experience.) By redirecting attention into sensuous experience he plunges into the sheer phenomenality of the phenomenon. This reverses the usual direction of the process of habituation from experience to generality, and thereby promotes the process of deautomatisation and hence a renewed encounter with the phenomenon itself.

But this redeployment of attention into sensuous perception by active looking — what could be called reversed seeing — is only the first stage. After this there comes the stage of what Goethe calls ‘exact sensorial imagination’ and which he describes as ‘recreating in the wake of ever-creative nature. The aim here is to visualise the phenomenon as concretely as possible — not to fantasise about it, embellishing it, but to imagine it as closely as we can to the phenomenon we encountered through sense experience. This is an exacting discipline, trying not to add anything which is not there in the phenomenon, and at the same time not to leave anything out. Here again the phenomenon itself is made the focus of our attention. But whilst focusing on the phenomenon in this way, what we are doing effectively is to make the phenomenon more ‘inward: We are going into the phenomenon, as we do in active looking, but now we are going into it by bringing it into ourselves.

This means that we are creating a ‘space’ for the phenomenon by means of our attention so that we can receive it instead of trying to grasp it — so that we become participant in the phenomenon instead of an onlooker who is separate from it. If we now return to the sensory encounter with the phenomenon, we will find that our senses are enhanced and we begin to become aware of the more subtle qualities of the phenomenon.

As we follow this practice of living into the phenomenon, we find that it begins to live in us. Whereas the intellectual mind can only bring us into contact with what is finished already, the senses — enhanced by exact sensorial imagination — bring us into contact with what is living, so that we begin to experience the phenomenon dynamically in its coming into being. This is exemplified by Goethe’s way of seeing the colours that appear when we look through a prism. Since the colours only appear wherever there is a visual boundary, a simple way of doing this is to construct a straight black/white boundary and look at it through a prism — the boundary and the axis of the prism should both be horizontal for the optimal effect. Vivid colours are seen at the boundary, and which they are depends on its orientation.

If black is above white the colours seen are red, orange and yellow; if white is above black the colours are pale blue, a deeper blue (sometimes called indigo), and violet. As soon as we label them we begin to think of them as separate colours. But they are not so clearly distinguished in sensuous experience, where we find they seem to merge one into the other as we move through them with our eyes. When we put attention into seeing, as if we were going into the colours through our eyes, we become aware of the sensuous quality of each colour — for example, the redness of red, that red is red. We do not usually experience this sensuous quality, but just register the colour as ‘red’ or ‘blue, and so on, by observation — i.e. by sense perception which gives us the information that it is ‘red’ but does not take us into the experience of red.

The second stage is the practice of exact sensorial imagination. Now we put aside the physical manifestation and work entirely in imagination, trying to visualise what we have seen as exactly as we can. As we move through the colours at a boundary in imagination, we begin to experience their sensuous quality as if we were within the colours — one student described this as feeling like she was swimming through the colours. We find there is a dynamic quality in the colours at each boundary. What we experience is not separate colours — red, orange, yellow, or pale blue, deeper blue, violet — but something more like ‘red lightening—to—orange—lightening—to—yellow’ as a dynamic whole, and similarly with the darkening of blue to violet. There is a sense that the colours are different dynamic conditions of ‘one’ colour.

This dynamic quality gives us an intuition of the wholeness of the colours at each boundary. This is not given directly to sense perception, but appears when sensuous perception is sublimed into intuition through the work of exact sensory imagination. In this way the sensuous-intuitive mode of perception replaces the verbal-intellectual mode. The colours are no longer thought of as being separate (verbal-intellectual) but are experienced as belonging together (sensuous-intuitive). The way to the wholeness of the phenomenon is through the doorway of the senses and not the intellectual mind.’

We find there is the sense of a necessary connection between the qualities of the colours at each boundary. It is not just accidental, for example, that the order of the colours is red, orange, yellow — and not red, yellow, orange — but is intrinsic to the colours themselves. This kind of connection between the qualities of the colours is missing from the Newtonian theory which asserts that light consists of colours which are separated when it is passed through a prism. In this case there is no intrinsic necessity in the order of the colours, but only an order that is imposed extrinsically by the attribution of a wavelength to each colour.”

Henri Bortoft, Taking Appearance Seriously, pp53-56


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 10: Goethe’s Theory of Colours

  1. Pingback: The Foundations of Holonomics 12: The Dynamic Way of Understanding | Transition Consciousness·

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

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