Taking Appearance Seriously

The Dynamic Way of Seeing in Goethe and European Thought

by Henri Bortoft

taking appearance seriouslyThis challenging book explains where Western thinking went wrong, and points the way towards the revolution in thinking that is needed to get back on track.

I read it on Kindle some time ago, probably not wise for such an erudite work, but it did make it easy to recall a lot of key points by downloading my highlights.

Almost by definition, this is difficult reading, because it does not ‘come from’ the place where Western thinking habitually does these days.

Henri Bortoft has a good shot at making this understandable to such as myself, with an interest in philosophy but no great training or professional expertise. It is of course inspired by the thinking of Goethe, one of the giants of our intellectual history.

I’ve included my edited notes in the following, which may help to give an appreciation of the staggering scope of this book and of Goethe’s thinking. But there is no escape from the effort of reading the book itself if you want to understand its quite revolutionary message.

The living part embedded in the whole

The whole presences within the parts. The parts presence in the context of the whole.

While the right hemisphere mediates the lived experience of wholeness, the left hemisphere mediates its representation – it replaces experience with a model of experience, which then gets confused with and mistaken for experience itself.

Related concepts: systems thinking, hermeneutics, David Bohm’s implicate order.

Phenomenology – Husserl

Phenomenology shifts the focus of attention away from what is experienced into the experiencing itself.

We neither discover an objective reality nor invent a subjective reality; there is a process of responsive evocation, the world ‘calling forth’ something in me that ‘calls forth’ something in the world.

The ‘common sense’ account of perception (empiricism) and language (nominalism) are not true to experience.

‘Our problem is that where we begin is already downstream, and in our attempt to understand where we are we only go further downstream. What we have to do instead is learn how to go back upstream and flow down to where we already are, so that we can recognise this as not the beginning but the end. That’s phenomenology!’

It is only by awakening to the livingness of the world that we will really understand what is at stake in our relationship to the natural environment, and at the same time begin to wake up from our enthralment by the artificial world of technology.


Before 12C science was entirely empirical. Then was added the use of experiment, as an aid to discovery and a means of verification/falsification.

This has been extraordinarily successful, but it does have the effect of shifting attention away from the phenomenon itself to the theory of the phenomenon.

There is no reason why we should think of a mathematical model as being more than a facet of the appearance of nature, nor any reason why we should take the mathematical as being in some way more fundamental than the sensory aspect of nature.

Science is not independent of cultural-historical influences which often determine what gets taken as fundamental.

Neoplatonism and Kepler

Neoplatonism had the effect of relegating the sensory world to a secondary status, even promoting the idea that the senses are not to be trusted.

The mathematical model is conceived as being in a higher ontological realm, separate from the lower realm of the phenomena as they appear to the senses.

The system of the central Sun and planets had the mathematical form of a heavenly temple for the presence of the living God.

With this Platonic background to the development of modern science, the senses were relegated to a secondary ontological status, giving rise to the unwarranted view that the senses are inferior.


Galileo took those qualities which cannot be directly mathematised out of nature altogether and relocated them within the human being. There is now a division between what later came to be called (by John Locke) ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ qualities.

This led to Cartesian dualism – on one side the primary, mathematical realm; on the other the realm of man. For Descartes there are two primary substances – matter and mind, each having its own characteristic essence. The essence of matter and body is ‘extension’, whereas the essence of mind and the human being is ‘thinking’.

His aim was to give a foundation to mathematical physics which was consistent with Church doctrine.

This new mathematical-mechanical philosophy had to compete with another prevalent philosophy of nature in the 15/16C – Renaissance Naturalism where nature was something living. Descartes and others saw Renaissance Naturalism as a philosophy of nature that they had to repudiate once and for all.

From a Goethean perspective it is astonishing how such a back to front philosophy came to dominate the modern western mind.


Newton’s major discovery was that it is possible to do what we now call physics without having to know the nature of what it is we are dealing with.

It was only from 18C onward that gravity began to be thought of as a ‘property of matter’, as if it were an attractive force inherent to matter. This is not what Newton thought.

Mathematics and Goethe

With the Arabs mathematics was not cultivated in isolation, but always balanced with other pursuits, such as music and poetry.

Roger Bacon (13C) said that mathematics was the ‘door and key… of the sciences and things of this world’, and concluded: ‘wherefore it is evident that if, in the other sciences, we want to come to certitude without doubt and to truth without error, we must place the foundations of knowledge in mathematics’. This encapsulates the one-sided mathematical approach that western science has worked with ever since.

This is what Goethe reversed when he returned to the senses and put sensory experience first instead of the mathematical. He was concerned with nature as it comes to presence in the experience of the senses.

Doing this reverses the direction of the automatic learning sequence, and shifts experience away from the verbal-intellectual mode of apprehension into the sensuous-intuitive experience of phenomena.

We tend to rely for the most part on the verbal-intellectual mode of apprehension, because this is what is developed through education in modern western culture. Whereas to begin with we might see each leaf concretely in detail, we eventually replace this with the mental abstraction ‘leaf’. Attention is transferred from the sensory experience to the abstract category.

By practising active seeing (directing attention to the sensory, instead of just passively experiencing a sense impression), the verbal-intellectual mind is suspended. Attention is brought back into the phenomenon itself instead of being trapped in verbal-intellectual generalities.

Whereas the intellectual mind can only bring us into contact with what is finished already, the senses bring us into contact with what is living, so that we begin to experience the phenomenon dynamically in its coming into being. Instead of abstracting unity from diversity, we have the intuition that the diversity is within unity.

We can correlate this difference with that between the left and right hemispheres of the brain. The right hemisphere delivers what is new as it ‘presences’ – whereas the left hemisphere is concerned with the ‘re-presentation’ of experience that is ‘present’ to the right hemisphere.

There is a tendency for us to rely on the world as it appears through the left hemisphere, and therefore to overlook the primacy of experience, to mistake the secondary representation of experience for the experience itself.

The fundamental process of life which Goethe recognised in the metamorphosis of the plant: ‘It had occurred to me that in the organ of the plant which we ordinarily designate as leaf, the true Proteus is hidden, who can conceal and reveal himself in all forms’.

What we think of as Plato’s philosophy may really be a misinterpretation of Plato. There is no archetypal entity – whether an organ or a plant – but there is an archetypal movement, the intensive movement of self-differencing.


The usual Western reflection on Islamic art ‘fails to answer the question of meaning behind it’. This was not the art of decoration but of sacred ciphers, in which the onlooker is invited to participate, not merely stand in awe, and decode the patterns according to his means. There is no longer any separation between inside and outside.

The meaning of a text is actualised and comes-to-presence in understanding now, instead of being a replication of what had once been present ‘in the author’s mind’.

The very essence of true understanding is that of being led by the power of the thing to manifest itself.

As Gadamer says, ‘we must recognise that “presentation” is the mode of being of the work of art’. When we go to see Hamlet it is Hamlet that we see because Hamlet comes-to-presence and is present in the present-ation. There is One Hamlet in the ‘multiplicity in unity’ of its presentations.

When we approach it dynamically, we see that the language in which thinking comes into expression gives form to what is thought, and does not take what is already thought and simply dress it in words. What is not said forms the background within which what is said emerges and upon which it depends for its meaning.

Shelley gives a graphic image of this in his Defense of Poetry: A great poem is a fountain forever overflowing with the waters of wisdom and delight; and after one person and one age has exhausted all its divine effluence which their peculiar relations enable them to share, another and yet another succeeds, and new relations are ever developed, the source of unforeseen and unconceived delight.

Similarly, we must think dynamically of the law as coming-into-being differently in its application to different individual cases.

Universal and particular – hermeneutics

We can all too easily separate the universal from the particular, thereby introducing a false dualism. The relationship between the universal and the particular in hermeneutic thinking is not unilateral, because the universal itself is reciprocally determined by the individual case to which it is applied.

The work cannot be separated from its interpretations. What this means is that the work becomes its own tradition.

Causality and ethics

Goethe’s conception of causality is in line with Aristotle’s: ‘cause and effect should not be separated – the two together constitute the indivisible phenomenon’.

This is in contrast to those who seek for ethical universals in the mathematical sense, i.e. moral principles which are invariant, the same for everyone at all times and under all circumstances. Aristotle opposed this kind of universalisation, emphasising instead that the good has no universal form regardless of the situation, and that the judgement of what is the right thing to do must always take the specific circumstances into account.


Coming-into-language is the fulfilment of thought. Language lets things come into meaning so that they can be understood. Language does not simply represent what is already there, but brings it into expression so that it becomes ‘there’ in the first place.

The world in which we live is not in the first place a world without language, to which language is subsequently added. Although we may talk about ‘language and the world’, the ‘and’ is fictitious because it implies that we could have ‘language’ and ‘world’ separately. We cannot.

It is now recognised that when a language disappears a culture is extinguished: ‘the language of a people is their life’, and that ‘a people can no more live without its language than a tree can grow without its roots’.

Any advantage which a ‘universal’ language gives in the world of international business and finance, and other global institutions, is always offset by an inevitable reduction in the possibility of meaning.

Appearance and ideas

There is a fundamental connection between appearances and ideas which enables us ‘to speak of them as two sides of the same reality’.

Mathematics, logic, and language are strangely entangled in Western philosophical thinking. The moment we step outside of the mathematical-logical conception into the lived experience of language, we discover that understanding cannot be reduced to the meaning of a propositional statement.

What is said does not encapsulate its own meaning, as if it could be fully understood independently of the context.

The idea that the logical analysis of language is a necessary foundation for philosophy is fundamental to logical positivism, which takes us in a very different direction to the real lived experience of language.

Augustine, Platonism and Modernity

Augustine, in many ways the founder of western Christianity, introduced Platonism into Christianity to such an extent that Nietzsche described it as Platonism for the people.

As already noted, Neoplatonism influenced the transformation to the heliocentric planetary system, and the development of mathematical physics in 17C, so was a major influence behind the idea that there are mathematical ‘laws of nature’ which determine the structure of the physical world.

The 17C was a time of murderous religious disputes, culminating in the Thirty Years War. Against this background, the kind of agreement and certainty found in mathematics had appeal beyond the confines of mathematics itself.

The notion that there should be universals in human nature – the very same for everyone – offered the utopian hope that it would be possible to build a rationally organised society in which everyone would be in agreement. But this must inevitably lead, not to the promised land of what is universal, but into the cul-de-sac of uniformity because it is based on the exclusion of difference.

This all resulted in the division in western culture between the world of Science, with its emphasis on the mathematical, and the world of Language.

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