Taking Appearance Seriously: The Dynamic Way of Seeing in Goethe and European Thought


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Encountering the whole in this way felt like entering into another dimension of the organisation — but a concrete dimension — compared with the usual way of thinking. One day I was trying to describe the idea behind this work to Brian Lewis, who was professor of educational systems at the Open University. But it became apparent that hermeneutics applies more widely to all forms of expression, and hence to any kind of cultural expression from the simplest to the most complex.

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Put simply, if somewhat abstractly, the hermeneutic circle arises from the circumstance that, in order to understand the whole we must understand the parts, but in order to understand the parts we must understand the whole. Switching from the holographic model to hermeneutics, had the advantage that it located what we were trying to do in the context of a known, even if unfamiliar, philosophical tradition. This opened the door to the possibility that systems thinking could be replaced by hermeneutic thinking in the context of human organisations.

I tried to express the difference between this and the systems approach in a paper which I gave at a conference at the beginning of the s. The aim is to avoid reductionism without replacing it by holism.

Henri Bortoft at Schumacher College 2010: Monday, Lecture One

The hermeneutic circle gives us a different way of thinking, in which the parts depend upon the whole, but equally the whole depends on the parts. At the very least a new way of seeing things seems to be called for. I am reminded of my first experiences in photography, when I lived in a particularly beautiful section of Victoria, British Columbia some years ago. The spectacular houses and gardens of Oak Bay had been part of my everyday world for only a few months when I resolved one weekend to meander through my neighbourhood, capturing images through the lens of my new camera.

Resurgence • Article - The Dynamic Way of Seeing

For the first time, I took note of details of leaded windows, garden fountains and pools, and flowers that were, miraculously, already blooming in February. The experience led me to realise that, while the camera focused my attention on specific aspects of my neighbourhood, what made these images special was that they constituted more than an isolated, atomistic parcelling up of the neighbourhood through the camera lens. Instead, each image was significant inasmuch as it captured and articulated in a distinctive way, the sense of place of the neighbourhood as a whole.

On the one hand I was drawn to notice particular details that I had missed, when I had not sought them out through the lens of my camera. On the other hand, each individual photograph was all the more meaningful to the degree that the broader sense of the place as a whole was reflected and even in some sense enriched in each photographic image.

Looking back now, it seems to me that the difference between the two approaches to wholeness reflects the difference between the world as mediated through the two hemispheres of the brain. Although the experience of wholeness has always been identified with the right half of the brain, it is now recognised that every characteristic of experience is in fact mediated through both sides of the brain, and consequently this must also be the case with wholeness.

The wholeness of the system is the left brain representation of the wholeness which presences through the right brain. This explains why it is that the systems approach seems to be dealing with wholeness, but does so in an artificial way that is a counterfeit of authentic wholeness.

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This interest in hermeneutics led me quite naturally into phenomenology — the most important and influential movement in European philosophy in the twentieth century. Hermeneutics as the philosophy of meaning and understanding was transformed by phenomenology, first through Martin Heidegger and then by Hans-Georg Gadamer. It is a philosophy which has the effect of seeming strange and yet familiar at the same time. Phenomenology seems to take the ground away from under our feet, whilst at the same time giving us the sense of being where we have always been — only now recognising it as if for the first time.

This means shifting the focus of attention within experience away from what is experienced into the experiencing of it. Like many others, I felt drawn towards phenomenology and yet frustrated by it, because it seemed to be both evident and elusive at the same time.

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However, by good fortune the stirring of my interest in phenomenology happened to coincide with the founding of the British Society for Phenomenology by Wolfe Mays. This gave me the opportunity to meet and learn from practitioners — which included not only academic philosophers, but also psychiatrists, sociologists, and others, who used the phenomenological approach in their work.

It was against this background that I was asked to give a series of workshops on phenomenology and hermeneutics at a new residential adult education centre. It seemed like an excellent opportunity. But, overcome by the enthusiasm of youth, it became a case of the proverbial fool rushing in where angels would fear to tread. I simply hoped that I would get a clearer idea of how to proceed with these workshops the nearer it got to the time.

When I took up residence at the college the day before I was due to begin, I went for a walk in the countryside in the hope that this might at least have the effect of reducing the level of anxiety I was now experiencing. I made my way to the bottom of the valley through which a small, clear river ran. I stood on a bridge, looking downstream at the river flowing away from me. For some reason this made me feel uneasy, and I crossed to the other side to look at the river flowing towards me.

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Taking Appearance Seriously

This felt better, and I spent some time there, looking upstream. I began to be drawn into the experience of looking, plunging with my eyes into the water flowing towards me. When I closed my eyes I sensed the river streaming through me, and when I opened them again, I found that I was experiencing the river flowing towards me outwardly and through me inwardly at the same time. The more I did this, the more relaxed and free from anxiety I began to feel. But of course, the moment eventually came for the first workshop to begin.

I remember walking down the long corridor toward the room where it was to take place, feeling I was about to be extinguished. The door at the end was closed, the students were already waiting inside, and as I turned the doorknob to go in I expected to fall into an abyss on the other side. What we have to do instead is learn how to go back upstream and flow down to where we are already, so that we can recognise this as not the beginning but the end.

It was a good start, a doorway into the movement of thinking in phenomenology through which after that I found I could begin to go. Phenomenology is a shift of attention within experience, which draws attention back from what is experienced — i. Some years ago I went back to the recordings that I had kept, but unfortunately the audio had become corrupted to the point where it was almost impossible to listen to. However, a couple of weeks ago I discovered a different set of the recordings on my computer and to my surprise the audio was in perfect condition.


  1. Henri Bortoft.
  2. Who Is Santa Claus? A History of St. Nicholas, the Christmas Tree, and the Three Wise Men.
  3. John, No Greater Prophet?

Given that the reason for making the recordings was to ensure that as many people as possible would have the opportunity to hear Henri in full flow, I sought permission to make them publicly available. As these lectures are so precious, I wanted to provide this introduction to Henri and his work.

Over the next week or so I will be releasing the complete set of lectures, and I will also be providing short introductions to each one to help provide a little narrative and additional context.

Bortoft, Henri 1938-

There are four days of lectures, broken up into two parts. I am extremely grateful to Jacqueline Bortoft and Annie Adams from Schumacher College for allowing me to make this possible. Become a member. Sign in. Get started. Simon Robinson Follow. You are commenting using your Google account. You are commenting using your Twitter account. You are commenting using your Facebook account.

Notify me of new comments via email. Notify me of new posts via email. In short this book was written for the minority rather than the majority as reported in a previous review. Even for me, a seasoned lecturer on the subject, it felt similar to walking up a hill of sand.

Taking Appearance Seriously: The Dynamic Way of Seeing in Goethe and European Thought Taking Appearance Seriously: The Dynamic Way of Seeing in Goethe and European Thought
Taking Appearance Seriously: The Dynamic Way of Seeing in Goethe and European Thought Taking Appearance Seriously: The Dynamic Way of Seeing in Goethe and European Thought
Taking Appearance Seriously: The Dynamic Way of Seeing in Goethe and European Thought Taking Appearance Seriously: The Dynamic Way of Seeing in Goethe and European Thought
Taking Appearance Seriously: The Dynamic Way of Seeing in Goethe and European Thought Taking Appearance Seriously: The Dynamic Way of Seeing in Goethe and European Thought
Taking Appearance Seriously: The Dynamic Way of Seeing in Goethe and European Thought Taking Appearance Seriously: The Dynamic Way of Seeing in Goethe and European Thought
Taking Appearance Seriously: The Dynamic Way of Seeing in Goethe and European Thought Taking Appearance Seriously: The Dynamic Way of Seeing in Goethe and European Thought
Taking Appearance Seriously: The Dynamic Way of Seeing in Goethe and European Thought Taking Appearance Seriously: The Dynamic Way of Seeing in Goethe and European Thought
Taking Appearance Seriously: The Dynamic Way of Seeing in Goethe and European Thought Taking Appearance Seriously: The Dynamic Way of Seeing in Goethe and European Thought
Taking Appearance Seriously: The Dynamic Way of Seeing in Goethe and European Thought

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