This is the fourth of seven planned sessions (currently scheduled every two weeks, till mid-June) encompassing a collective reading of Bortoft’s book. Planned is roughly the first quarter of Part III “Understanding Goethe’s Way of Science”.
In the first of the three essays comprising this volume, Bortoft examined the difference between what he called “authentic and counterfeit wholes”, as the notion of wholeness plays a central role in understanding Goethean science. In the second essay, he focused on the nature and specifics of Goethe’s scientific consciousness, which recognizes and experiences the unity of phenomena. In the third essay, the longest in the volume, his attention is directed to understanding Goethe’s way of science.
Goethe realized, through his own historical investigations, that Vorstellungsarten (that is, ways of conceiving) play a crucial role in the constitution of scientific knowledge. Those of mainstream science – both in his day and ours – are atomistic, mechanical, and mathematical, whereby his own way could be understood as genetic, dynamic, and concrete. He came to see that scientific knowledge is intrinsically historical instead of merely factual, or as he phrased it, “the history of science is science” (p. 121).
Central to cognitive perception is the organizing idea. Cognition happens so quickly that we fail to recognize it happening and are left merely with the results. We are, however, participants in the process, not just mere onlookers as mainstream science maintains. In other words, “the way of seeing and what is seen cannot be separated – they are two poles of the cognitive experience”. As with the case of bi-stable visual images (e.g., the duck/rabbit), what is seen is not a result of the sensory impressions we receive, but rather a result of the way the mind organizes that sensory data. In other words, it is ideas which organize our perceptions, and it is in this direction that we must redirect our perception, making it an active seeing, not merely passive observation. What we then recognize is the diversity within unity, but in contrast to, say, a systems approach no division of unity.
As Bortoft puts it, “The intrinsic features of the process of cognition must be the same wherever it occurs. So contrary to the widely held belief, science is not a special activity which is uniquely different from all other kinds of cognitive activity. It is epistemologically no different from the everyday process of cognitive perception […]. All scientific knowledge, then, is a correlation of what is seen with the way it is seen” (p. 138). Hence the core of scientific discoveries and theory development is always the organizing idea and not merely the sensory input. Bortoft shows how these ideas, in this case atomism and Neo-Platonism, are primarily historical-cultural in nature. That is, the organizing ideas of science come from outside of science itself and do not arise from the sensory data gathered by science itself. That is, we to turn our understanding of the process of science virtually inside-out.
Bortoft, Henri (1996) The Wholeness of Nature: Goethe’s Way Toward a Science of Conscious Participation in Nature. (Great Barrington, MA: Lindisfarne Press), III. Understanding Goethe’s Way of Science, Chapter 1 (Introduction), Chapter 2 (The Organizing Idea in Cognitive Perception) & the first two sections of Chapter 3 (The Organizing Idea in Scientific Knowledge) (pp. 119-172).
(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, v22.pdf (82.6 KB) (Corrected version!)
How does your own understanding of how science functions agree (or disagree) with Bortoft’s presentation? How persuasive or convincing do you find his presentation?
Bortoft (as well as Goethe, Brentano, and others) maintains that cognitive perception is an active process in which the perceiver invariably participates. How do you differentiate between such active seeing or perceiving and what critics of this approach might call “subjective projection”? How do we differentiate between the “reading” of the phenomenon and a possible “reading into” it?
What do you think of the roles and sources of “organizing ideas” in the observational discoveries and theories of science that Bortoft describes? How does his presentation differ (or in what ways is is similar) to your own understanding of the development of science or the conception of science you developed during your education (or afterwards, though your own reading and study)?