Writing the review of this book is somewhat of a Sisyphean task since, although it weighs in at 420 pages, it says what it set out to say in the shortest possible manner. Indeed, Henri Bortoft apologizes for his lengthy explanations in the beginning of the book, noting that the only alternative to a detailed introduction by way of examples would be the use of a very non-standard language. This is because certain concepts the book is trying to explain are beyond language — not in the sense that they are too complicated but, on the contrary, that they are too simple. Too simple in that they deal with the aspects of experience and existence that are pre-linguistic, with the nature of what we sense prior to partitioning the world into objects, time, and space. As such, many of the topics with which this book deals simply do not have names in the ordinary language, and some of them are even not nameable as they are neither spacial entities, nor processes, nor even abstract concepts obtained by way of hierarchical definition.
In his choice of staying away from introducing non-standard language, Bortoft accomplished a very complex and necessary task — giving a ramp by which everyone who is interested can attain the understanding of the works of Wittgenstein, Gadamer, Kant, and, of course, Goethe as well as understand the relevance of their thought to the many foundational crises science is currently experiencing. Bortoft has a remarkable talent for leading the reader to profound understanding without either simplifying the matter or resorting to philosophical jargon and mystical hand-waving. In fact, in addition to being a primer on Goethe, Bortoft’s book could effectively serve as an essential commentary for understanding some of the most profound works of Western philosophy and their bearing on the problems we are facing today. Importantly, this book is certainly not an “anti-reductionist” rant. Bortoft’s writing is precise and well-researched, reflecting his professional background as a theoretical physicist (he was a student of David Bohm).
Wholeness and Synergy
It is easy to overlook the significance of this work by assuming that it is merely a formal exposition of the common sense notion that “the whole is bigger than the sum of its parts” — or what we sometimes call “synergy”. This notion of synergy would suggest, to use a contrived example, that a team of 2 people: a programmer and a graphic designer working together can build a website that is a 100 times better (by whatever appropriate metric) rather than just 2 times better as each can build separately. By contrast, a team of 2 people digging holes will only dig 2 times as many holes as each can do on their own. This is an illustration of synergy and to appreciate what Bortoft wants to show us it is critical not to think that his (and Goethe’s) notion of “wholeness” has anything to do with the 1+1=3 type of thinking. This confusion is, in fact, one of the underlying reasons that Goethe’s scientific writings have often been misunderstood and dismissed as dilettante.
To show us the difference, Bortoft gives us two remarkable and familiar examples that serve as useful analogies throughout the book. The first one is that of the hologram. If you break the hologram into two pieces, each of them will still show a complete 3D image albeit with slightly lower resolution. By contrast, if you break a photograph in two, you will just get half a photograph in each piece. In a hologram, the “wholeness” of the image is present in each of its parts, no matter how small are the pieces and, equally importantly, this “wholeness” is not a Platonic abstraction, floating somewhere in the world of pure form, but, rather, it is a very concrete type of wholeness that comes into being through its parts. To try to apply this analogy to our example of the web site team would be to say that the wholeness of the web site team is visible in the developer and the graphic designer even as they work separately and each of them builds a complete and working website. That this analogy fails is an illustration that the common sense notion of synergy is compositional rather than truly whole in the sense of Goethe.
The second example is that of our everyday experience of reading: we understand the meaning of a sentence by reading words and letters and yet to understand the meaning of a single word we need to know the meaning of the whole sentence. (For instance, to know that “letter” in the preceding sentence meant an “alphabet symbol” rather than an “envelope” you needed to understand the whole sentence first). Clearly, the meaning of a sentence is something objective and concrete, and yet it is most certainly not a word or a collection of words. In fact, it is the sentence that gives meaning to words even as the words reveal the meaning of the sentence. These are but two everyday examples of the notion of “authentic wholeness” that demonstrate that the analytical approach to knowledge is not always the right tool. We cannot possibly find out the meaning of a sentence by exhaustively studying every possible property of individual words. Bortoft shows that the natural world (both living and non-living) abounds with these examples where in fact it is more the rule than the exception.
It is important to note that the tone of the book is not “preachy” as is sometimes the case with works that set out to challenge the dominance of the Newtonian paradigm in science. To Bortoft, Newton and Goethe are a complements rather than thesis and antithesis. He acknowledges the indisputable utility of the Cartesian/Newtonian worldview as a framework for achieving mastery over the physical world and merely points out that they will be increasing found wanting as a framework for understanding nature. His style of presentation is detached and professional and as such will not be grating to a working scientist.
Goethe’s Participatory Phenomenology
Upon establishing a firmer understanding of the nature of wholeness, Bortoft proceeds to describe how Goethe’s approach is in some cases better suited to understanding natural phenomena. Goethe described himself as a phenomenologist. In this context “phenomenologist” means precisely the following: Goethe did not seek explanations of the phenomenon outside of the phenomenon itself. This may seem like a useless tautology at first, and, according to Bortoft, this itself is powerful demonstration of our bias to always seek to explain one phenomenon in terms of another (or a canonical set of phenomena such as the fundamental forces). In fact, one of the principal aims of modern science is to map the observable phenomena to a canonical set of mathematical models. By contrast, Goethe “… learned to read a plant in terms of itself, so that the plant becomes its own language, and … to read the language of animal form so that the animal becomes its own explanation.” What exactly does this mean? To understand this is one of the main objectives of the book, and Bortoft succeeds in showing that Goethe meant it quite literally, and that his experiments in “letting a plant become its own language” were more than merely a flight of poetic license for which Goethe is so admired.
Another important focus of the book is the “participatory” nature of Goethe’s science. Bortoft shows that far from being confused about Newton’s achievements, Goethe was intentionally laying down a complementary research program that focused on understanding phenomena on their own terms, rather than mapping them to something else (e.g. angle of refrangibility in the case of Newton’s theory of color). His approach was purposefully subjective and sought a deep internal unity with the phenomenon. For instance, in his study of plants, Goethe practiced what he called “Exact Sensorial Imagination”. He would spend a lot of time observing plants in the various stages of their development looking for what he termed “an instance worth a thousand, bearing all within itself”. He then used his imagination to fully recreate the plant in his mind down the smallest detail and imperfection. Through repeated application of this technique Goethe sought the encounter with the archetype of the plant; using Bortoft’s analogy we would say that he tried to see the whole hologram based on some representative pieces. This was often misunderstood by commentators as a search for the plant’s platonic form, or a blueprint, or a taxonomy, and yet to Goethe it was not any of these things. To him, the plant archetype was a concrete universal that shines forth in its parts — much like the meaning of the sentence shines through the words and the letters that constitute it.
To Goethe, science has another important objective that is separate from making predictions and gaining mastery over the natural world. In his view, every phenomenon achieves a higher level of existence by being observed, by being an object of thoughtful contemplation: a flower is not aware of its beautiful symmetries, nor an animal of the grace of its motion — it takes a participatory observer to bring these higher level aspects into being. Goethe rejected the notion of the Cartesian dualism and thus in his science the observer and the observed are a polarity rather than a dualism. Says Goethe: “By contemplation of an ever-creative nature, we might make ourselves worthy of participating intellectually in her productions.”
Bortoft skillfully mixes the discussion of the philosophical significance of Goethe’s work with its practical implications. He takes a long detour into the work of Wolfgang Schad who used the Goethean approach to discover profound insights in the field of mammalian morphogenesis. One of the Schad’s thought-provoking conclusions is that the extinctions that we see in the geological record need not always have a physical cause such as a meteor or a volcano — and can be seen as the exhaustion of the morphogenetic process. Schad’s approach has since been successfully extended and applied to other areas as well. Bortoft dwells much on these practical examples to show that the quantitative mode of analysis is not the only objective mode of analysis, and an approach such as the one of Goethe’s can be rigorous without necessarily being mathematical, with conclusions that can be independently verified by other scientists without the need of mapping the phenomenon to a set of real numbers.
Throughout the book, Bortoft exhorts the readers to try Goethe’s approach for themselves even if it feels somewhat awkward at first. (In fact, he notes that one of the surest signs that Geothe’s criticisms are salient today is that the modern students of natural sciences such as Physics, Chemistry, Biology have almost no interest in actually observing Nature: labs are usually seen as a chore and the theoretician is often viewed as superior to the experimentalist). In my case, one plant that I have in abundance is the birch tree. And indeed, in the beginning I felt a little ridiculous staring at a birch tree looking for this “whole” that might magically appear like an Elvis sighting. Yet the key thing that Bortoft teaches is that what is “seen” remains the same; it is “what” is seen that undergoes a profound change. The mind, he says, is a sense organ as well — it is an organ for seeing meaning. Plants are a great subject for contemplation in search of this experience since they live on a profoundly different time scale. Once you train your mind to see the specimens as “parts of the same hologram,” you start seeing the plants as possessing much of the dynamism that we usually reserve for animals. For instance, an entire meadow of strawberries can in fact be genetically one and the same strawberry plant, the same individual, that is reproducing vegetatively. In this simple example, the plant can be seen as traveling around, exploring its surroundings — just doing on a time scale and in a way that is normally not visible to us because our minds are not conditioned to noticing it.
After practicing for a few weeks with the book’s patient guidance and having a glimpse of this experience, you will never see a humble birch tree leaf the same way. To see it is to feel the depth of geological time that led to its form and, at the same time, to recognize that a single leaf embodies the possibility of the birch tree. If all the birch trees in the world were to suddenly disappear, you could put this little leaf in a cup of water and raise a twig which, in turn, could give rise to a new flowering of birch trees for immeasurable eons, filling the world with its possibility, calling forth an endless variety of forms. The encounter with the birch tree leaf can become a powerful experience of the direct perception of its wholeness, of its history and its possibility — not in a sterile sense of placing it in some externally induced taxonomy, but in a living, dynamic and sensual way: a fragment of the hologram that are all the birch trees that have lived and will ever live.