The Foundations of Holonomics 9: Seeing Diversity as Creative Unity

I would like to start this post with a little housekeeping. As I was curating this lecture this weekend I discovered an error in the naming of the audio files. This lecture from Henri actually comes prior to last week’s lecture on Goethe’s theory of colours. In order to help resolve this small issue therefore, I have re-titled last week’s lecture. This will help in the coming weeks when I create a single page with all lectures on. So hopefully it will now make sense why this lecture is ninth in the series and last week’s is the tenth.

Henri Bortoft starts this lecture by commenting on the intensity of concentration required by the students necessary for following the movement of thinking he has been taking them into. Having these recordings of Henri is extremely precious, as normally a week or so is necessary in between the lectures to absorb and reflect on the teachings and insights. For this reason I have been trying to copy this suggestion by leaving gaps between the publication of each one.

In this lecture Henri will therefore bring to a conclusion his exploration of the dynamic unity in nature. By this he is referring to the dynamical unity of self-differencing, where there is difference within unity. As Henri comments, this is where we end up when we work with organic processes in the natural world, but it can be extremely easy to miss. The reason is that people often are not able to see the idea, and therefore they are not able to appreciate how remarkable it actually is. 

So here we discover that it is often not enough simply to know about an intellectual idea. If we cannot at the same time see the idea in a phenomenological manner, we have not fully embodied and understood it.

At the start of the lecture Henri provides students with a handout of three different quotes. This is to allow them to focus on the content and not to have to worry about making notes. All three of the quotes are included in the extracts below, the first one coming from Ron Brady, a Goethean scientist who Henri starts with. The full reference for his paper which Henri cites is:

Ronald H. Brady, `Form and Cause in Goethe’s Morphology, in Frederick Amrine, Francis J. Zucker, and Harvey Wheeler (eds.), Goethe and the Sciences: A Reappraisal (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), p.286:


The forms of life are not ‘finished work’ but always forms becoming, and their ‘potency to be otherwise’ is an immediate aspect of their internal constitution … The becoming that belongs to this constitution is not a process that finishes when it reaches a certain goal but a condition of existence — a necessity to change in order to remain the same.

Here we have a clear recognition of the self-differencing organ, ever changing into other modes of itself, so that what we see as the diversity of organs is the living unity of the plant. So far we have considered only the organs of the plant, but we can now expand our horizon to consider the dynamics of ‘becoming other in order to remain itself’ in the variety of different forms which an individual plant species can take.

If we consider a single species of plant, we will see individual plants of this species taking on different forms according to the conditions of the environment in which they are growing. Changes in environmental factors such as soil conditions, weather patterns, the light, and so on, are seen to result in marked differences in the external form (the phenotype) of individual plants of the species.” 

Photo: Simon Robinson

When Goethe travelled across the Alps into Italy, he saw many plants which were familiar to him in Southern Germany, but modified in accordance with the change in environment. Thus, in the Alps he noticed that, in general, branches and stems were more delicate, buds further apart, and leaves narrower, than they were in the same species in Germany. He recognised that in such cases he was seeing different manifestations of the same plant and not different plants.

This phenotypic variety of a species is not extensively many different plants, but intensively One plant coming-into-being as different expressions of itself, be-ing itself differently in changing circumstances. The idea of `the one and the many’ is turned inside out here: Goethe does not see many different plants which are basically the same (downstream, static) but One plant be-ing itself multiply (upstream, dynamic).

The one is not separate from the many in this way of thinking. On the contrary, what we find here is that, in the words of Gilles Deleuze: Multiplicity is the inseparable manifestation, essential transformation and constant symptom of unity. Multiplicity is the affirmation of unity; becoming is the affirmation of being. 

Henri Bortoft, Taking Appearance Seriously, pp76-77


Henri is teaching us how we need to avoid falling in to trap of thinking mechanically. Conditions stimulate plants but do not determine them:


We must be careful when we are trying to conceive the plant in its environment in an organic way that we do not inadvertently fall into a way of thinking that is more appropriate to the inorganic realm. It is all too easy for our thinking to lose sight of the very quality of livingness which is the organism’s own ‘potency to be otherwise’, and for us to fall into thinking of the organism as if it were responding in a mechanical manner to the influences of the environment.

The living organism does not just adapt to external circumstances in a passive manner, as it would do if it were only an inert body responding to external forces according to the laws of physics. The specific form which a plant takes in its surroundings is not the result of external conditions acting directly on the plant to cause the modification which we observe.

Photo: Simon Robinson

The conditions clearly do influence the specific form which the particular plant takes, but they do not cause it. Such a way of thinking fails to take into account the living organism’s own contribution to its specific form. Goethe spoke of the particular individual plant as being a `conversation’ between the living organism and its environment. This metaphor draws our attention to the plant’s active contribution to the form which it takes in specific conditions, emphasising the fact that the individual expression of the plant which we see is the outcome of the active response of the organism to the ‘challenge’ posed to it by the environment.

This is stated very clearly by Steiner: ‘We must conceive at a deeper level than the influences of external conditions something which does not passively allow itself to be determined by these conditions but actively determines itself under their influence”. The living organism configures itself actively, instead of being conditioned passively, in response to the environment. The external conditions stimulate the plant but do not determine it. The plant responds actively out of its own ‘potency to be otherwise’ to produce the form of itself which the environment evokes.

Henri Bortoft, Taking Appearance Seriously, pp77-78


As Henri says in this lecture, “We must avoid the trap of thinking in a ‘finished product’ manner, as if the potential forms were there already in the organism like peas in a pod”. Goethean scientist Craig Holdrege describes this as follows:

“Imagine that you are holding a groundsel seed in your hands before planting it. Depending on how, when and where you plant the seed, a limitless variety of forms can arise. All these potential forms are not, of course, stored in the seed. The concrete forms are emergent characteristics that arise out of a germinal state and develop in the interplay between the plant’s plasticity and the environmental conditions. In particular surroundings the potential of the plant is evoked, but what appears is only one manifestation of the myriad ways in which this plant could develop.”

Holdrege, Craig (1996) Genetics and the Manipulation of Life – The Forgotten Factor of Context, Lindisfarne Press, Hudson.

The diversity of plant species such as peonies we see is the living unity. This is diversity. It is in fact diversity which is the unity, so there is not need to get rid of diversity to discover the unity within a phenomenon. We can see unity concretely as being identical as the diversity, which Henri explains in this following section:


As well as the variety resulting from environmental factors, there is the much greater variety that can arise from the genetic variation taking place within the species. This is what interests the breeder. He or she is always on the look out for ‘interesting’ variations which can then be propagated — the process of artificial selection which Darwin took as his model for the idea of natural selection.” This is how the huge variety in any one species of plant arises.

There are, for example, a thousand different varieties of Peony. Many of these are on display together on the same day at the Chelsea Flower Show in London. It is an astonishing variety to behold, and yet what we see before us extensively as many different plants is organically One plant which is intensively multiple — a ‘multiplicity in unity’ which is an expression of the dynamic unity of self-differencing. It is One plant be-ing itself differently and not just many different plants of a common kind.

Of course, we usually see more in the ‘downstream’ mode of the latter than in the ‘upstream’ mode of the living plant. But if we can shift our thinking upstream, we can recognise that the diversity of peonies we see is the living unity of the Peony. How different it would be if we looked for unity among the peonies by trying to find what they all have in common. If what is living is always ‘becoming other in order to remain itself, then we must learn to recognise diversity as the dynamic unity of life, so that we can see the unity concretely as being identical with the diversity of the phenomena. This is not what we would expect to find: that the unity is ‘hidden’ right in front of us as the diversity.

Henri Bortoft, Taking Appearance Seriously, p78


It was not until reading it that Henri realised just how important the study of barnacles was to Darwin in the development of his theory of evolution. Darwin’s famous journey on The Beagle lasted for five years. In this time he collected many specimens, and it took him a further ten years to describe them. It was in 1846 that Darwin wrote to his friend Henslow, saying how happy he was to have finished this work, all apart from one single barnacle species left to describe. Although Darwin at the time thought that this would only take him a few weeks, this marked the start of a new eight-year long study, encouraged by another great and close friend Hooker, which would transform Darwin from a well-respected geologist into a world-class biologist.

Charles Darwin’s sketches of barnacles

What made this work so important to Darwin was that before his study of barnacles, he had thought that variation only happened at certain times under certain circumstances. But after this work he came to realise that in fact variation was ubiquitous, a very condition of life itself:


Darwin was deeply impressed, overwhelmed even, by the ubiquity of variation. Before he did his work with barnacles, Darwin had believed that variation is the exception in nature, occurring only in times of crisis. His barnacle work changed that. Here he found that there are no unvarying forms, and that barnacle species are, as he put it, eminently variable: What made the work of classification so difficult was that ‘Every part “of every species” was prone to change; the closer he looked, the more stability seemed an illusion. (Adrian Desmond and James Moore, Darwin, p.373.)

Barnacles, he told Hooker, are infinitely variable; and in the context of his theory of what he called `the transmutation of species, he went further to see variations as incipient species. There is a switch in gestalt here, like the reversing cube: in one perspective the phenomenon appears as the variations of a species, whereas in another perspective the very same phenomenon appears as the initial stages of new species. Goethe and Darwin both encountered the organism’s ‘potency to be otherwise’ which is the self-differencing dynamic of life.

But whereas Goethe saw this unceasing variation phenomenologically, so that he understood it as the expression of life itself, Darwin wanted to explain it (in this regard he thought more like a physicist). He eventually `found’ an explanation in the key to the success of Victorian capitalism: the division of labour. Prompted by the idea of the ‘physiological division of labour’ put forward by the French zoologist Henri Milne-Edwards (Desmond and Moore, p.394 and p.241), and the considerable experience of his wife’s family (the Wedgewoods) in the assembly-line manufacture of pottery, Darwin applied the metaphor of the division of labour to see Nature as a `workshop’ — Nature’s ‘manufactory of species’ — in which variation produced greater functional diversity of species, so that overcrowding did not necessarily result in direct competition for food and other resources.

Thus species with small functional differences could all be supported in the same area without open competition by occupying different niches for which they were each functionally adapted in their own specific way, with the result that: just as a crowded metropolis like London could accommodate all manner of skilled trades each working next to one another, yet without any direct competition, so species escaped the pressure by finding unoccupied niches in Nature’s market place’ (Desmond and Moore, p.420). The Malthusian problem of overpopulation and competition was solved in Nature, it seemed, in much the same way that it had been in nineteenth century industrial Britain.

Footnote 22, Henri Bortoft, Taking Appearance Seriously, pp194-195


In this final quote, Henri draws our attention to the way in which scientific studies are designed to extract diversity out of the equation. But with the living way of seeing which we have been practicing, which maintains the livingness of nature and takes us into the dynamic unity of the phenomenon under investigation:


As we have considered the varieties of a single plant species as a whole, so we can go on to consider the different species within a genus — and then different genera within a family — also as a whole. It is an enlivening experience to see a particular family of plants in the light of the idea of the dynamic unity of self-differencing. We begin to see the different kinds of plant within the family intensively as One plant be-ing itself multiply, instead of just seeing different plants that have something in common.

The extensive perspective, which remains on the outside of the phenomenon, tries to draw off the unity by abstracting what is the same, eliminating differences. The result is a lifeless ‘unity in multiplicity’ which is a dead end. We can recognise that the movement of thinking in this case is the opposite of that which sees the diversity of the phenomenon unfolding as the living unity of its coming-into-being.

Anyone can learn to practise this living way of seeing for themselves. For example, we can become familiar with the different members of the Rosaceae family — the rose, cherry, apple, blackberry, strawberry, and so on — and begin to see them as One plant in the form of ‘multiplicity in unity: Learning to see in this way has the consequence that we begin to see each member of the family reflected in all the others, so that the rose is seen in the apple, as the strawberry is seen in the rose, for example, without there being any sense whatsoever that one kind of organism somehow changes physically into another.

What we are seeing in this way is the metamorphosis of One plant into different modes of itself, and not the external change of one plant into another one. How different the experience of this is from that of looking for what these different plants have in common, i.e. from seeing the Rosaceae in the mode of the static unity of self-sameness. This latter way of seeing leads only to an abstract generalisation — something like an ‘average plant’ of the Rosaceae family — which functions as an organisational schema, or ‘blueprint, for all the plants of the family.

Henri Bortoft, Taking Appearance Seriously, pp79-80


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 9: Seeing Diversity as Creative Unity

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

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