Cosmos Café [2021-04-01]: The Wholeness of Nature 2

Session Introduction

This is the second of seven planned sessions (currently scheduled every two weeks) encompassing a collective reading of Bortoft’s book. Planned are the first two chapters – approximately the first half – of Part II “Goethe’s Scientific Consciousness”.

Although introduced in the first part of the book, this essay focuses in particular on Goethe’s approach to science, his scientific consciousness. Since Kuhn’s seminal essay The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (2nd Enlarged Edition, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970) there has been more openness to approaches to science which are not necessarily fashionable, which is necessary if we are to understand how science has developed historically. Oddly enough, there has been more criticism of Goethe’s science from students of the humanities than from mainstream scientists themselves. Experimental psychologists of color, for example, look upon Goethe as one of the founders of their science, and his scientific method and the philosophy of science which it reflects are also taken seriously by modern physicists. What mattered to Goethe was the way of seeing which influenced the facts that were observed. What is experienced in this way cannot be grasped like an object (just like the meaning of a text cannot be grasped as an object), but rather what is encountered is the “organization or unity of the world” (p. 34). To understand Goethe’s way of seeing, we need to experience it for ourselves.

The first step in the investigation of this way of seeing is to review Newton’s own experiments and his subsequent theory of color, which was Goethe’s starting point as well. The fact that Newton himself viewed color as a sensation in the observer, his presentation of his results allowed his followers to quickly forget this idea. In the Copernican, and certainly Galilean desire to mathematize science, which had been further developed by the British empiricists, led to a distinction between primary qualities, (i.e., those which can be expressed as quantities) and secondary qualities (i.e., those which can only be expressed indirectly in mathematical terms). Newton’s notion of “refrangibility” enabled him to mathematize color. Goethe, on the other hand, required a more active attention to the phenomenon, that is, to truly “look” by putting our attention into the seeing itself. By replicating the observations entirely in one’s imagination – what Goethe called exakte sinnliche Phantasie, or “exact sensorial imagination” – one can penetrate deeper into the phenomenon. What one experiences in this way is what he referred to as the Urphänomen, or “primal or archetypal phenomenon”. In other words, “The world which we know is not in fact visible to the senses in the way it seems to be” (pp. 49-50). To the empiricists we know the world through experience, but Goethe’s approach demonstrates clearly that there is always a nonsensory factor in cognitive perception. As Bortoft phrases it, “purely sensory experience would be a state of difference without distinction, diversity without differentiation. It would be a condition of total multiplicity without unity […] a state of awareness without meaning” (p. 53).

What this points toward, according to Bortoft, is two distinct modes of consciousness: (1) the analytical mode, of science, which sees the world as composed of separate, solid bodies unrelated to each other; and (2) the holistic mode, which is dynamic, nonlinear, simultaneous, and intuitive, instead of verbal-intellectual. It is this latter mode of consciousness which opens a new dimension of the phenomenon, its depth. For Goethe, of course, this is not something which is given, so to speak, but “something to be achieved”, namely a perception attained by a change of consciousness, not by a process of rational thought (p. 72). This is, in effect, a shift from the intellectual to the intuitive mind, wherein the phenomenon becomes its own explanation.

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), II. Goethe’s Scientific Consciousness, Chapter 1 (Introduction) & Chapter 2 (Making the Phenomenon Visible) (pp. 29-76).

  • (Alternately: Bortoft, Henri (1996) The Wholeness of Nature: Goethe’s Way of Science. Edinburgh: Floris Books, 6th printing, 2018.)

  • Bortoft Reading Schedule_The Wholeness of Nature, v21.pdf (82.7 KB)

Seed Questions

  • What is your own experience of modern science’s approach to knowledge and explaining reality? Do you agree with Bortoft that it is not so empirical as it would like to believe it is? Do you feel that overall there has been something of a change in its approach in your own lifetime?

  • What do you think of Newton’s approach to the theory of color? Do you find his theory and its presentation as incongruent as Bortoft claims? Why do you think there might be such a discrepancy? How significant do you think the discrepancy is: is this a cause to reject science outright?

  • What do you think of Goethe’s approach to the theory of color? Do you believe he is actually onto something or is this, as some critics maintain, a subjectivizing of the theory? Have you tried to practice this active mode of seeing yourself in any way, and were you successful or not?

Context, Backstory, and Related topics


Came across this interview to Robin Wall Kimmerer, NY Prof. of environmental and forest biology, who speaks of the “lens of the indigenous worldview” and how that should complement the scientific one. Found that inspiring and in line with our topic here…


Another interesting video of someone talking about Goethe:


Recording now available. Interesting that the Vimeo automatic image selector ‘chose’ the scene from nature.

A few of the references from today’s session:

Books (each with a unique “easter egg” link for your reading pleasure this holiday weekend)

  • Gathering Moss by Robin Wall Kimmerer (only an indirect reference but a great read that I wish to recommend) + an apt quote from the book:

We poor myopic humans, with neither the raptor’s gift of long-distance acuity, nor the talents of a housefly for panoramic vision. However, with our big brains, we are at least aware of the limits of our vision. With a degree of humility rare in our species, we acknowledge there is much we can’t see, and so contrive remarkable ways to observe the world. Infrared satellite imagery, optical telescopes, and the Hubble space telescope bring vastness within our visual sphere. Electron microscopes let us wander the remote universe of our own cells. But at the middle scale, that of the unaided eye, our senses seem to be strangely dulled. With sophisticated technology, we strive to see what is beyond us, but are often blind to the myriad sparkling facets that lie so close at hand. We think we’re seeing when we’ve only scratched the surface. Our acuity at this middle scale seems diminished, not by any failing of the eyes, but by the willingness of the mind. Has the power of our devices led us to distrust our unaided eyes? Or have we become dismissive of what takes no technology but only time and patience to perceive? Attentiveness alone can rival the most powerful magnifying lens.

From @Lisa:

Now go out there and climb a tree for science-sake :deciduous_tree:


Thanks, Doug, for posting the link to the Owen Barfield talk at the end of the month. Here are the other things I mentioned:

Jill Bolte-Taylor TED talk (she describes what it’s like when the analytic mind goes offline – she had a stroke and managed to remain conscious of what was happening while it was happening)

Lorraine Daston has written about the history of objectivity in science. Fascinating. She just published a book about it, but there are articles out there that give you the gist of it without the book-length time commitment.

Julian Jaynes Not advocating it, just providing it for reference.

Similarly, Leonard Schlain’s The Alphabet vs. the Goddess

Thanks all for doing this. It’s very important to my ongoing work.


I Found this piece this morning - another Riff on Receptivity/Open I was
attempting to Express:

Twyla Tharp: Thinking in Three Dimensions

In a recent New York Times article, critically acclaimed choreographer Twyla Tharp talked about process and philosophy over the span of her forty-year career. While working on a new project Tharp changed her hours to match those of her dancers in Germany, saying: “I project myself into their bodies. You’ve got to know how their body is feeling.” Tharp wanted to be in sync with her dancers, adding, “You have to think in three dimensions. Movement is energy and space and time.”

Eye in the Hand


Yes, thank you, Doug, for processing the video and adding those reference links!

Here’s that riff I shared, inspired by the White Body Supremacy thread

riff: […]
A noun, In popular music, jazz, etc., a short repeated phrase, freq. played over changing chords or harmonies or used as a background to a solo improvisation; 2) A repeated phrase, idea, or situation.
B verb, In popular music, jazz, etc.: play riffs.
Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, 5th ed.

I called the piece above a ‘riff’ in the B sense of incorporating ‘repeated phrases, ideas, or situations’ in an improvisatory flight. I would not tend to call it a ‘poem’ because its lacks (in my feeling) the intentionality and wholeness of a poem. These are fragments of a murdered psyche.

However, as I am always doing, I will receive and recombine sensory and intellectual impressions, in order to say or mean something that doesn’t fit neatly into declarative sentences.

I started with a feeling in my heart, gut, and whole body, which was vibrating with the image held in mind (and the reality of the image—the man hanging, the tree, the onlookers—sensing the texture of black and white, the pixels of the image on my screen and the photographic paper these were based on, a graphite #2 pencil in hand), and I was contemplating the relentlessness of incarnation—which you can hear, for example, in a John Coltrane solo.

I drew a black bar in the middle of the page, then underneath it began to write my splattering of cognitive associations, guided (I felt) by a covert cosmological intuition, which remained mute in some stubborn way. And then the line came (inspired by Goethe’s theory of color as emergent from the play of dark and light, as witnessed in the prism experiments described by Bortoft in our reading):

“When my blues bloomed violet, I knew black was almost back…”

Which, as one can both see and visualize for oneself (empirically!), is just how the primal phenomenon works. The rest flowed from there. Of the deeds and sufferings of lights, a mere shard—infinite participant.

I am happy enough with the experiment to share the story of my process, which is really a group story, but I still want to note that if I/we were to continue such improvising, composting, and re-composing, we would likely grow more fertile soil for thought.

See also:


Additional Background

I am coming to this late and don’t know how much I can contribute after this one post due to other issues.

Before commenting, I wanted to read the Bortoft book and then based on the video about Braiding Sweetgrass I began that book after.

My impressions are the Bortoft book clearly illustrates the mental/rational modern worldview that Gebser alluded to and explored widely. Within the intellectual, rational, abstract, language based worldview Bortoft illustrates how Goethe, through close observation to the plants, was able to offer another way of looking at/doing science.

Kimmerer a trained botanist, professor and native american approaches science through culture and story and demonstrates how stories reflect a nuanced understanding of the local ecosystems (natural science of wholeness reflected in the stories) in which they live. Her more poetic viewpoint which include native language is balanced with specific scientific data that demonstrated the wholeness of the nature she speaks about (what seems to be what Goethe/Bortoft tried to express and what seems to part of the discussion of Bildung as well).

Her book clearly demonstrates a way to approach, consider and live a life that Goethe through Bortoft alludes to. Braiding Sweetgrass is a demonstration of a way of seeing/being (as in Goethe), behaving and living that is different from mental rational modernity. And it is not just or wholly intellectual it is lived experience (based on the coming to being of the original knowledge–more wholistic based on intimate knowledge gained through observation) as Goethe suggests, except this knowledge and awareness predates him by centuries.

Kimmerer outlines a philosophy of reciprocity based on lived experiences, behaviors that focuses on a sense of gift or giving versus a view of scarcity and commodification. For her caring is not abstract (talk, ideas, discussion, language or argument; but includes but not as the default position) but evident in behaviors, interactions and engagement with the world or a specific ecosystem (Goethe’s wholeness).

Price of admission: This requires engagement, learning the practice of gratitude and reciprocity with the land, nature, ecosystems, animals, plants–in each moment (as Goethe tried to do). Her observation is that many speak of nature in the abstract but have only experienced it indirectly on tv, with a phone or via shows like Animal Planet. They have not spent extended time in nature itself to experience or understand the web of interrelationships–the context, and the effects of an alternative awareness or being to the the current scientific, mental/rational as Goethe and Bortoft demonstrate.

This viewpoint also applies to those on the left who tend to protect without understanding that often something must be taken from an ecosystem to survive. Hunting and wolves to keep herds of deer and elk in check allows the trees and shrubs to survive; or the harvesting of saplings, sweetgrass or other plants as a means to stimulate growth. How the loss of wetlands feeds an ecosystem, how single crop farming does not take into account the natural needs of the land (one might suggest a focus on microclimates could reveal what works on the land in a specific location). The question is how and when…and that requires effort, commitment and understanding.

It is evident that for Kimmerer this is not a new perspective–it is how she lives her live, how she was raised for her the other way of thinking is the modern science which she has learned and integrated into her way of life and way of being. For us it requires more than a shift in thinking, but also a shift in behavior that requires commitment–as I think Bortoft says Goethe seeks.

In the end it reminds me of a parallel summary offered by anthropologist Angels Arriens (of the indigenous viewpoints of several cultures and perhaps even western religious traditions).

  1. Show up, be present always.
  2. Pay attention to what has heart and meaning.
  3. Tell the truth without blame or judgment.
  4. Be open to outcome.

Easy to understand and consider but what it requires to live that in each and every moment, make it a way to live…try it for a week. It is harder than is seems for it will challenge every preconceived notion (mental, rational, cultural, personal) in an individual’s experience.

My sense Bortoft tries to introduce Goethe’s thought and awareness of another way through what he knows best–philosophy…but to actually feel and sense and touch those relationships, actualizing them one must engage with Kimmerer’s work…and that requires putting one’s hands into the ground and understanding the world below our feet–what is there, the relationships, the webs of self-sustaining sharing.


In fact, while the present scientific, philosophical and educational systems is still stuck in the bookish analytic mind, Goethe and Bortoft experience Nature with an intuitive mind and the indigenous cultures with a spiritual heart-centered one. Aim should be that to transcend them all into something that could be called an “integral science” that contains them all and goes beyond. I believe indigenous peoples will play a role in helping humanity to take steps towards this direction.