Cosmos Café [2021-04-15]: The Wholeness of Nature 3

In your time zone: 2021-04-15T17:00:00Z

ZOOM video conference:

Session Introduction

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

The first half of this essay focused on a comparative study of Newton’s and Goethe’s approach to their study of light and color, highlighting the cultural-historical influences which deeply influenced both approaches. We should remember that these are not competing ways of seeing the world, but rather should be understood as complementary to each other. In the second half of this essay, though, the focus shifts more specifically to Goethe’s organic vision, including both plants and animals. This leads necessarily to a summary discussion of Goethe’s understanding of the nature of scientific knowledge itself.

Goethe saw nature much more holistically than we have been raised and educated to see it. Whereas elementary botany considers the flowering plant as an external assemblage of different parts – leaves, sepals, petals, stamens, etc. – which are separate and independent of one another, what Goethe discovered is that it could be described as continuity of form (pp. 77-78). All parts are manifestations of what he called an Urorgan (a primal or archetypal organ) which is neither a mental abstraction (internally subjective) nor externally objective (a primitive organ). It was his achievement to see the plant in terms of itself. Instead of comparing numerous examples in search of their common elements, a static, inflexible unity in multiplicity, Goethe is describing the dynamical, infinitely flexible multiplicity in unity (analogous to the hologram, described in the first essay to the volume).

Goethe coined the term “morphology” to describe the study of form in both the plant and animal kingdoms. As with his study of plants, Goethe discovered that the mammal, for example, is disclosed as well in terms of itself, thereby becoming its own language (p. 99). The connections between the various characteristics of a given animal are not just contingent, as they are seen for example in Darwinian terms (any given feature could randomly mutate into something else), but are rather necessary, incapable of being otherwise without altering the animal itself into something other than it is.

For Aristotle, knowledge is not knowledge of what happens to be true, but rather what cannot be otherwise and hence must be true (p. 104); and the same applies to Goethe. Knowledge should not be understood as a mere subjective state of the knower independent of phenomenon in question. Instead, for Goethe, “the state of ‘being known’ was to be understood as a further stage of the phenomenon itself” (p. 108). In this state of knowing, it is clear that the knower and the known cannot be considered external to each other, but rather constitute an indivisible whole. Consequently, Goethe’s view could be called “organic” since it sees knowledge as a further development of the phenomenon itself, and as such it is particularly well-suited for studying Life.

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 3 (Goethe’s Organic Vision) & Chapter 4 (The Scientist’s Knowledge) (pp. 77-115).

  • (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

  • The notion of “intuition” continues to play a significant role in Bortoft’s presentation of Goethean science. How has your own understanding of the notion perhaps shifted in the course of your reading? Do you think this is the best term for what is being described?

  • What do you think of Bortoft’s contrast between “unity in multiplicity” and “multiplicity in unity”? Is the distinction clear and meaningful for you? Is it a helpful distinction?

  • The theme that the whole can only be understood in terms of the part and vice versa is recurrent throughout this reading. One distinction which Bortoft highlights in relation to this is between “extensive” and “intensive”, especially as the latter term is used in a way that is most likely new for most of us. What do you think about this part of the discussion? What new insights have you gained as a result of it?

  • The notions of “contingency” and “necessity” play an important role in this reading as well. What are your thoughts on the notions of “evolution” that these imply? Did the contrast impact your own understanding of evolution in any way? If so, how?

  • The analytical way of knowledge of modern science has brought about many technological developments which are impacting our lives in many ways, both positively and negatively. In which practical ways do you think Goethe’s organic way of knowledge might have positive effects on our lives? Do you see potential for less than favorable developments as well?

Context, Backstory, and Related topics


Common Sense, An Interview with Peter Kingsley Parabola Conversations

Sense we’ve been talking about Senses,I Felt moved to Flashback to this article & the Cafe’ we engaged in:

Peter 's piece on the Senses seems to have some parallel to Goethe?



Ah yes, I missed that one (had just got back from our America trip and was dealing with some health issues), besides, I hadn’t read any Kingsley at that time.

In the meantime, I have engaged him some (Reality, In Darker Places of Wisdom, A Story Waiting to Pierce You), and I would concur that he is trying to get us to take another look at what the Ancients, in particular the pre-Socratics but also up through Plato and Aristotle, were telling us. I have long been suspicious that the “received wisdom” we’ve been fed about the Greeks may have been a somewhat lopsided diet. Kingsley was the first one I read who called that wisdom into question.

In the meantime, some more exposure to Steiner has shown, he was pointing the same direction. Bortoft, of course, is quite open about it, and the sources he quotes, who I’ve also been looking at (e.g., Barfield, Toulmin, and more notably even Heidegger, but particularly Gadamer) all resonate well with Kingsley’s reading.

My current side-read, Toulmin’s Cosmopolis, takes a very detailed look at the when-did-we-actually-go-modern question, and takes a very close look at the state of consciousness which was dominant yet shifting just prior to and after Descartes. The book provides a lot of nuance to Gebser’s own description of the mutation to the deficient Mental, that is, Rational structure of consciousness, but emphasizes, moreso than Gebser, the shift in attitude toward the senses in particular that appears to have been a central theme in the transition.

Thanks for the pointer, Michael … I had completely missed that one.


Thanks, Michael, for your flashback. I had forgotten about this episode and so it refreshes what is left of my memory system. I’m amused that I refer to Shakespeare and Joni Mitchell and the use of cloud imagery.

Antony.** Sometimes we see a cloud that’s dragonish;
A vapour sometime like a bear or lion,
A tower’d citadel, a pendent rock,
A forked mountain, or blue promontory
With trees upon’t, that nod unto the world,
And mock our eyes with air: thou hast seen
these signs;They are black vesper’s pageants.

And Joni-
*I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now
From up and down and still somehow
It’s cloud’s illusions I recall
I really don’t know clouds at all"

This cloud fantasia was inspired by Marco’s explication of illusion and allusion. This seemed all a bit fluffy until I read in Bortoft’s Taking Appearances Seriously that Goethe was thrilled by Luke Howard’s essay On the Modification of Clouds. Howard’s taxonomy of clouds, was a breakthrough for Goethe, who composed a poem in tribute. Imagine what Goethe would have thought about fractal geometry and chaos theory?

This taxonomy is one of the very few bits of information I still remember from my education. Here it is.

High clouds (CH): Cirrus, Cirrocumulus, Cirrostratus

Middle clouds (CM): Altocumulus, Altostratus, Nimbostratus

Low clouds (CL): Stratocumulus, Stratus, Cumulus

What I didn’t know then ( in the cafe) was that the Covid Pandemic a few months later would upset everyone’s apple cart. This is the undercurrent, I believe, of many of our Cafe discourse events. We were seeking to create conditions for a new mind that we all felt is required and long over due. I still feel this way but have much less a sense of urgency about it than I did then. What was a source of angst that was on the margins is now center stage in everyone’s perceptual world as we wash hands, wear masks, and debate whether to submit to medicalization techniques that may have disastrous ecological consequences.

I pulled Toulmin’s book down from the shelf and noted that I underlined this sentence, which struck me as relevant then and relevant now.

" futures which do not just happen by themselves, but can be made to happen, if we adopt wise attitudes and policies." p. 2

Does this ring a bell? I have asked many of us And what would you like to have happen?

I want to create conditions for new minds and new futures!

I’m not sure about wise attitudes and policies…maybe that is what we are doing already. Can we do it on purpose? Toulmin seems to think so.

I round off these reflections to share a dialogue with Bryan Magee ( Bortoft’s favorite living philosopher) and Iris Murdock, who suffered from Alzheimer’s disease. In her opening statement she demonstrates the split in her world between philosophy and fiction. Her description fits in with Iain McGilchrist’s recent theories. I would say this preparation for a new mind is a widely shared desired outcome and has been under way for a while now… The interview is very, very highbrow British but a lot of fun. And Murdoch is very cool and prickly, a bit paranoid and also really smart.


I enjoyed that talk between Murdoch and Magee, though I agree with you Murdoch’s worldview is quite split and she is speaking of narrow version of Philosophy that is/was popular in the UK, namely Analytic Philosophy. I think the thinkers identified with Continental (mostly French and German) thought would see philosophy and literature being a lot closer than analytic philosophers are generally comfortable with. (And yet Plato, who is regarded as a founder of the tradition, was a perfect of example of literature and philosophy, with hugely generative creative tension, working together.)

Having double-majored in Philosophy and (and theory-heavy) Comp Lit, I have always been interested in the philosophers with a literary bent and creative writers with a philosophic one—though I agree with Murdoch that ideas themselves (in abstraction) are not a great basis for literature but on the other hand the holistic way that ideas and life intertwine I find most interesting. Where the brain harmonizes, the work of art is its own theory. (I believe this paraphrases Goethe.)

It’s still really wonderful to hear this caliber of dialogue, which is made possible by Magee having deeply read Murdoch, and the interlocutors sharing an obvious both intellectual and personal rapport.