Cosmos Café [2021-04-29]: The Wholeness of Nature 4

Session Introduction

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.

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), 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!)

Seed Questions

  • 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)?

Context, Backstory, and Related topics


Since this part deals with how we see the world and how our organizing ideas of the world are in the seeing, I would like to share an excerpt of my book which deals with this question the other way around: how would we perceive the world without an organizing idea?

“That we don’t ‘see’ the meaning of (or in ) the world, let alone the world as it is, but that the perception of meaning is an acquired skill that we learn from birth, is well known from the fact that it takes several weeks until newborns start to recognize their parents’ faces. They don’t move their eyes between two images and they see only objects that are 20-30 cm away, holding their gaze for only a few seconds. For babies, the world is only a kaleidoscope of fuzzy images without meaning.
Interestingly, we can gain a glimpse into what it is like to be in such a state of ‘meaningless awareness’ from those grownups affected by congenital cataracts and that could be treated later. ‘ Congenital cataract ’ is an organic anomaly present at birth that clouds the eye’s natural lens and that can result in ‘amblyopia’ –that is, a disorder of sight in which the brain fails to process visual stimuli. In the 1930s, Marius von Senden described, for the first time, the perception of space and shape in the congenitally blind before and after operation. When the sight of previously blind patients was restored, and their bandages were taken off, the patients did not see the world as assumed. Instead, what they experienced was only a blotch of chaotic colored patches that meant nothing to them. They needed time and exercise to make any sense out of it.
The issue is not new. It was already debated in the 17th century and is known as the ‘Molyneux problem’ . In 1689, the French philosopher William Molyneux conceived of the following thought experiment.
Suppose a man is born blind and has learned to recognize objects only by touch. For example, this person can distinguish, by the sense of touch, a sphere from a cube but has never seen them by the sense of sight. Now suppose that he suddenly can see. Molyneux questioned whether, if the sphere and cube were placed on a table, the man would be able to say which was the sphere and which was the cube without touching them.
The question was debated among bright minds, like John Locke and George Berkeley, who essentially agreed that when our mind can’t build a relation between the tactile and sight worlds, the answer to Molyneux’s question must be negative. The connection between the two worlds must be established by experience.
In 2011, neuroscience could furnish an answer. An Indian research project, ‘Project Prakash’ , that treats blind children, and with their help, tries to find answers to scientific questions about how the brain develops and learns to see, showed that Locke and Berkeley were right. Indeed, it turns out that in the treatment of congenitally blind children (8-17 years old), once they gained sight, they failed to visually match objects that were previously known to them only in the form of tactile information. Therefore, transferring tactile to visual knowledge is not an innate ability. However, this ability developed quite rapidly and their skills in relating the vision-touch information had improved a few days after sight onset and was almost restored in the range of months.
These were only some of the many anecdotes which make it clear how data is not understanding. Meaning and sensory input are ontologically two distinct categories. If we don’t realize this point, then a plethora of paradoxes, apparent inconsistencies, and strange consequences appear.
The question is: In what sense is science immune to these perceptual illusions? Isn’t science a construct of meanings too? Are things like matter, particles, strings, neurons, etc. objectively real in the world or are they on the same ontological footing as any subjective experience of meaning, such as the vase and the two faces of the Gestalt figure?
The only thing we can be sure of is that we have perceptions. We construct our world representations, not by knowing something which is out of us but always and inevitably by some computation which takes a subjective experience of perception at its foundation. It all comes down to perception. The world around us is constructed in our minds from sensory information of perception. One thing is sensory perception as such and another is the emergence of a mentally bounded semantic object which arises from these phenomenal events.”


These are thought provoking questions, Marco. It is the nature of bounded semantic objects emerging that we explored in Lisa’s class. What is a semantic object and how is different from a percepts? The group memory field, supported by the new archival library we are adding to, can give us new access to how we put together our perceptual/conceptual co-arisings in group discourse events. We are not blank slates, nor are we doomed to repeat what our ancestors did wrong. We can learn imaginally, too.



Humans like Trees seem to Be Liminal Expressions of Distinction without


Sounds interesting. In which Caffè session in particular did you explore this? Might be useful to follow up so that I get also other perspectives.

In fact, the title of the chapter is “The binding problem and the emergence of meaning”.
Modern neuroscience calls it the ‘binding problem’ because it has no clue whatsoever how (supposedly) the brain binds perceptions into a semantic whole. Yet another aspect hard to digest for the reductionist and materialist science which usually ignores the issue alltogether.

But the issue is not new. Already Hume ruminated about how we perceive ‘bundles of perceptions’. In particular Fichte pointed out the binding act of consciousness in an original manner, noting how our body is perceived in our inner consciousness as a whole, not as a bundle of parts. There is an interplay between an act of ‘articulation’–that is, that to become aware of a part of the body–and the ‘organization’ of the whole body. In this sense, articulating is an act of freedom because we are free to decide what to perceive as a part and what as a whole. For example, we can perceive and think of–that is, articulate–an arm separated inside our perceptual field of cognition from that of the whole body. But, also, this articulation that focuses on the arm is itself perceived as a whole again, because an arm has a hand with fingers which, in this instantiation are not accounted for as separate perceptions. It is not a ‘bundle’ of perceptions but one and a single sensorial and mental experience at once that could not be possible if not for a self-consciousness that allows for this part-whole relationship.

Hmm…?? What? Unable to compute a semantic whole. :laughing:


I share a link to that channel.

The course occurred in many sessions over a period of three months. I recall that different kinds of objects, perceptual and conceptual, were elaborated upon. How we deal with the boundary of a chair is very different from how we deal with the boundary of justice or love. We have different kinds of boundaries for different kinds of objects and we get easily confused. I don’t know how to time stamp on Vimeo recordings so I can’t post where this happened but I do remember me, Lisa and Marco Morelli focusing attention on this very question. As you say, Marco Massi, this is a large research question in the philosophy of mind that remains unresolved in narrowly conceived, externally oriented, cognitive theories. I would invite other participants from that course to share their memories of where this topic could be located in the archive.

I think the capacity to move between recorded events and the actual memory system of really real people is of paramount importance for our next wave of collaborations. As of yet it appears to me that how we determine the frameworks for such collaborations takes a lot of practice as the coordination of tech and a “group mind” are far from easy to make obvious. It is more like “recalling a motif in music” than it is like " cutting up a pie and distributing it."

Yes, and this is what we were doing when we discussed the Necker cube and the gestalt switch that are somewhere in between mind and nature. The location is very important to our perceptual/somatic intelligence. And the gestalt can’t happen without a felt sense of a personal pronoun " I ".

That’s why I probed you about where is everywhere?

The analytical mode is literal. The holistic is all over the place. We need both but the holistic is much smarter than the analytical and uses metaphor to communicate rather than numbers. Qualities rather than quantities. And numbers to the pre-modern mind have qualities. Where is the One in relationship to Zero? This is a very deep problem. The ancients were aware of this. The Moderns seem to have gotten lost in the Zero. Nothing will come of nothing.

Concepts and virtual realities emerge out of the communications that occur at the perceptual level that give a size and shape to our concepts. The “bundles of sensations” Hume declares is all that there is is a very poor metaphor for this complexity. Information is within communications of vast scale and can’t be reduced and continue to maintain coherence. The analogue is much richer than the digital.

The capacity for each finger of the human hand to touch the thumb is a profoundly deep articulation of a complex organization that is much more than a bundle of raw sensations. This capacity is also non numerical.

Gregory Bateson raised his hand and asked his students," If I were a plant how many digits would I have on my hand?"

The class said," Five."

" Wrong," Bateson replied." A plant doesn’t count. A plant thinks relationally and about the spaces in between the digits."

This reply feels very Goethean, as we are trying to embody the self differencing that occurs between the intensive and the extensive dimensions like the difference between 1+1 and 1x1.


It looks like that mycorrhizae fungi are quite in fashion nowadays… but rightly so. It is a fascinating subject.

Note how, at 2:55, the Darwinian mindset unable to think beyond principles of natural selection or “egoistic genes” can hardly make sense out of it and finds itself confronted with an impenetrable mystery. :slight_smile:


This gorgeous piece by George Quasha (who I had only heard of from @hfester 's reference to his work during *The Minor Gesture* reading and during Quantum Poetics) fits like an additional axial stone atop our Wholeness discussion and our Consciously Evolving Language sessions. Quasha does not directly reference Bortoft in this superb essay but rather is his poetic doppelganger. (“Anything valuable is subject to counterfeit”). A stunning read for your Sunday morning/evening. Perhaps we can discuss this piece here, Thursday, or in a separate Cafe?


I’m a big fan of Quasha’s work, his poetry is strange, his work with stones is even more strange. And this little piece which you have posted, Doug, captures the contemporariness of Goethe’s Way.
As we start to notice who else is thinking this way we can notice that lots of us are, and some of us, without knowing anything about Goethe directly. We can go in many directions. I read the book you recommended Evolutionary Metaphors. I am thinking about all of these thinkers and how the pandemic amplifies this work.

This is suggestive of an underground movement that is starting to come to the surface, to touch the daylit, rigid, mindsets of most of us, who in the midst of the pandemic, can no longer pretend the deficient mental structure reigns supreme. That is why it is important to give our meta-attentions to our metaviews.

" The boundary between word and thing is getting thin." - Quasha

From my journal dated July 25, 2019 after a talk with Jeremy Johnson on his book, I made some notes. I got obsessed with boundary conditions and phase spaces.

The Boundaries of Civilizations in Space/Time
The boundary of a text?
The boundary of a sentence?
The boundary of a symbol?
The boundary of a song?
The boundary of vowel?
The boundary of a soul?

And when a sound is imagined or a sound is produced by the vocal cords, what is the relationship between the actual and the possible?

As every blade of grass is a different shade of green, so is it true that every time a word is spoken it is spoken differently. You can’t step into the same river twice nor can you say the same word the same way. It is always pronounced slightly different. It is impossible to pronounce a word exactly the same way every time.

I am trying in the above quote to do a meta-journal, a journal about a journal, and a reflection upon the 'I" that is ‘we’. I think that what I thought in the summer of 2019 is different from what I think now in the spring of 2021. A lot has been happening, lots of strange loops, lots of catastrophes. Not all of this is random, however. I sense that there are meta-patterns all over the place.

Quasha notices that the word and the object don’t sit still and we language users are constantly having to break frame and trans-frame. This is not always pleasant and sometimes we pretend the anomalies that are happening all around us, just don’t matter. That is until we hit an impasse and we start to recognize these patterns which we ignored are suddenly giving rise to storms, famines, nightmares, illnesses and strange contacts with other than human agencies. Even the Pentagon is taking notice.

I would invite us to consider another Goethean inflected scholar, Sean Esborn-Hargens, who takes Faerie, Galactic, and Celestial Intelligences seriously. This video is lively and the paper he has written, which is in the notes of the show, is even more of a deep dive. Our theory of the Imaginal is just starting to get off the ground. And is there a relationship between the Imaginal and the Supramental as Sri Aurobindo concieves of? We are, perhaps, through poetry, reading, writing, talking, during these turbulent years, creating conditions for that imagined development? And after the ecstasy, I have to wash the dishes and have another cup of coffee.


These Two Waves of F/T(Feeling/Thought) Forms Point in the Direction of
my Travels the last 14days of Attending To the Phenomenological Nature of Moving from one Environment to another( Dessert to Forest)

Outer,Inner to Outer,Inner & Back Again
…A Plant with Legs & Ability to Fly!


Indeed. Recently I was thinking of an imaginary opinion poll taken before and after the pandemic asking people (and scientists): “Do you consider virology an exact science?” I’m pretty sure that we would have seen an enormous plunge in the number of affirmative answers.
This is not to say that I’m an anti-vax or alike (in case someone wonders…) but this pandemic is laying bare the limitations of the reductionist and materialistic sciences as the ultimate arbiter of truth, skepticism is increasing towards the powers of the cherished “analytic mind” and everyone now can see how the so called “Age of Reason” yearns more than ever for an “Age of Wisdom”. It might well turn out that, on the long run, the collective consciousness has grow faster with this pandemic rather than without it. The question is when will we have grown up sufficiently to no longer need the harsh lessons of Nature… I believe this is also a Goethian way of seeing world events.


And that is a deep question. And suffering can lead to wisdom and suffering can lead to stupidity and more suffering. Winston Churchill once said of the United States that they always do the right thing, after they try everything else. We have been doing everything wrong, recently. There may be no one right way but just lots of wrong ones. I am of the opinion that Wisdom and Metaphors walk hand in hand, through a weird world, inhabited by many kinds of intelligences, operating at many scales. The military model we are addicted to has produced some pretty bad metaphors and until we come up with some better metaphors, nature and mind can never sponsor a consortium of intelligences, as Goethe sponsored in his way of knowing/becoming. Our mistakes are necessary. I like to think of our little study group as a micro version of the macro shift that is happening more quickly due to the current crisis.



Well Sung John…


After reading the Quasha essay that @Douggins posted, I wanted to share this chapter called the_flesh_of_language.pdf (1.9 MB) by David Abrams from The Spell of the Sensuous. Maybe there could be a follow-up conversation about it too? I would like to read the whole Abrams book and have a .pdf copy of it too if anyone else is up for it (file too large to upload here). I feel like I’m missing out on so many good conversations. I hope summer will be long enough to catch up.


Great Book!,also… Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology


I’m sure we can create the conditions for that to happen. I first learned about Quasha from your talk, Heather, and I hit the used bookstores and found Axial Stones. I would never have discovered him without your prompt. Also, I have worked with another recommendation of yours, Kristin Prevallet, Trance Poetics.

As we have both come out of Bonnie Roy’s Magellan Courses, where I first encountered Goethe, I imagine that the Quantum Poetics movement, which you co-sponsored, was a resonant chord, in a new kind of poetics. We continue to re-embody, to come into being again and again, from far upstream.

I remember you graced us with your presence reciting Eve in the Milton project. What fun that was. So, with all of this rich and complex grouping and re-grouping, I wonder about what happens next?

I like Abrams a lot. It’s all becoming a bit queer/weird. And who will we bring to the next trance/dance, if there is one?


I have this one on my shelf, waiting for the right timing. I read Spell decades ago and could always reread it. Abrams is a wild mind. Maybe after the Goethe we can think about a summer futuristic visionary reading collaboration?


To answer this question, In Session 1, we looked at the notion of boundaries in general (particularly their fractal quality) and then in session 2 we looked at the notion of ego boundaries in particular.

Here is a link to the text we read, although I’ve expanded it as a result of the course.

Consciously Evolving Language


Thanks @Lisa , just saw your YT presentation and finally got it what you are trying to do. Struggled for a while but better late than never… :wink: Quite interesting topic.

Maybe a naive question (that you might have already discussed in your session… sorry for eventually bringing up old stuff… ) but doesn’t Sanskrit capture a bit of that ideal of integrality you are looking for? I’m not at all competent in Sanskrit but have always heard people talking about the fact that it does not use words for objects, rather, for properties. A word in Sanskrit is a coalescence of several properties at once and makes it, so to speak, ‘multi-perspectival’. Maybe I’m totally wrong… but just wondering?


Unfortunately I don’t know enough about Sanskrit either. I have read about it, too, as a sacred language that “brings into being,” essentially (think cymatics, and how sound gives form to matter). If it does describe properties rather than objects, it might be like some North American indigenous languages, such as Hopi and Blackfoot.

It would be worth my looking more into Sanskrit. I wish I had had the forethought to do it while I was at Univ. of Chicago, which has the Oriental Institute (full of Sanskrit scholars!). As you say, better late than never!