Recorded 18 March 2021
Many are familiar with Johann Wolfgang von Goethe as a German poet and dramatist, but only few people are aware of or familiar with his scientific work. Henri Bortoft’s insightful book, The Wholeness of Nature provides a readable and fascinating look at Goethe’s scientific theories. Though largely rejected as a dilettante in his time, Bortoft succeeds in showing that Goethe’s way of doing science was in fact a deeply meaningful and authentic alternative to the dominant scientific paradigm.
This paradigm, as generally understood, believes itself to be an objective and impartial way of perceiving and explaining reality based on deductive logic, empiricism, and experimentation, using purely sensory data as input. In other words, it is a perhaps more comprehensive expression of our general, everyday understanding of reality: a collection of separate “things”, “out there”, which we encounter, manipulate, and control.
Bortoft presents us with a genuine, albeit participatory, way of doing science that overcomes this separation, enabling us not only to “see”, but, more importantly, experience the wholeness of nature. The hermeneutic phenomenology that Bortoft describes is a refreshingly new way of seeing and participating in the scientific enterprise. Goethe’s way of science is not merely a dusty 18th century artifact, but rather a practical and applicable solution of many of the problems of science today.
This is the first of seven planned sessions (to be scheduled every two weeks) organizing a collective reading of Bortoft’s book. Planned are the Preface and the first of the three essays comprising the book: Authentic and Counterfeit Wholes.
In this essay, he explores two phenomena to help elucidate the difference between the two kinds of wholes, namely holograms and the universe of light and matter. He also uses the example of the hermeneutic circle – the process by which we understand texts when reading – to further clarify how the parts and the whole interrelate to yield meaning and understanding. The notion of the “active absence” is introduced to illustrate how what is not readily observable in the phenomenon can be included through the active participation of the observer in the process. Bortoft wraps up this essay, then, with a description of Goethe’s way of science and the important role played by the Ur-phenomenon (that is, the archetypal phenomenon).
Reading / Watching / Listening
Bortoft, Henri (1996) The Wholeness of Nature: Goethe’s Way Toward a Science of Conscious Participation in Nature. (Great Barrington, MA: Lindisfarne Press), “Preface” (pp. ix-xii) & “I Authentic and Counterfeit Wholes” (pp. 3-26).
(Alternately: Bortoft, Henri (1996) The Wholeness of Nature: Goethe’s Way of Science. Edinburgh: Floris Books, 6th printing 2018.)
What do you think of Bortoft’s distinction between “authentic” and “counterfeit” wholes?
Do you think that Bortoft was successful in making this distinction?
How has Bortoft’s presentation helped you in enriching your own understanding of wholeness?