The Dynamic Way of Seeing in Goethe and European Thought
by Henri Bortoft
This 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.Read More »
In his excellent book Taking Appearance Seriously, Henri Bortoft expresses succinctly the effect of the brain’s left hemisphere in overriding the lived experience registered by the right hemisphere (in line with Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and His Emissary):
“Where 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.”
Not only does this result in scientists confusing their maps of reality with reality itself (see earlier post), it leads to much of our lives being led at second hand, as we focus on our conceptual maps of what is going on, rather than on the real lived experience. This is perhaps a contribution to the disconnection from body mentioned in my post reviewing In Touch.
This is not intended as a criticism of the left hemisphere, indeed this is where social media such as blogs largely reside. It is just that we do need to be aware of what is going on and ‘remember’ our real selves.
Alert readers of this blog may have realised that I am reading Henri Bortoft’s book Taking Appearance Seriously: The Dynamic Way of Seeing in Goethe and European Thought. Bortoft throws interesting insight into the role of Isaac Newton in creating the modern scientific world, confirming Edi Bilimoria’s article mentioned in an earlier post.
Isaac Newton basically invented modern mathematical physics in his masterwork, Principia Mathematica (1687). To the theory of atomism and mechanical philosophy he added the notion of forces which act between bodies that are not in contact.
Bortoft suggests that from the eighteenth century onwards, 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. He did not believe in attraction as a real, physical, force.
For example, in a letter Newton said:
Pray do not ascribe that notion to me, for the cause of gravity is what I do not pretend to know and therefore would take more time to consider of it… Gravity must be caused by an agent acting constantly according to certain laws, but whether this agent be material or immaterial I have left to the consideration of my readers.
So Newton’s major discovery was to the effect that we could create mathematical models of the real world, what we now call ‘physics’. Subsequent founders of modern science were dedicated to the mathematical approach to nature, but ultimately the ascendancy of the mathematical was accompanied by the downgrading of the sensory and increasingly seeing the world as a mathematical abstraction. To many scientists the world became de-spiritualised and dead.
This was not Newton’s intention, although his name is often invoked as the originator of such a viewpoint.
In his book Taking Appearance Seriously: The Dynamic Way of Seeing in Goethe and European Thought, Henri Bortoft gives an interesting insight into the two modes of being present in the world, which he relates to the left and right hemispheres of the brain as outlined by Iain McGilchrist in The Master and his Emissary, which he quotes:
“the right hemisphere delivers what is new as it ‘presences‘ – before the left hemisphere gets to represent it.”
Bortoft goes on to say:
“Where 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 the experience itself.”
This is surely a crucial confusion that lies at the heart of the modern project. Rather than living within the world and nature as an integral part of it (right hemisphere), we live in the world at second hand in the abstracted meaning (left hemisphere) that occurs to us following the experience. Having lost that direct connection with nature as it presences, we treat it as an external object to be exploited and dominated. Look around you – the evidence is before your eyes.
It happened in Europe from about the time following the Renaissance. And it was arguably a necessary development of humanity. Now however, it is becoming imperative to readjust the relationship, so that direct experience of nature has equal status with our abstractions, such as science, technology, economics, capitalism, materialism… Dominance by abstractions is leading us into a nightmare world.
The New Renaissance must involve reconnection with our essential nature, a balance between left and right hemispheres.
My post on Presence gives another perspective on that word. Featured image by Allan Ajifo, via Wikimedia Commons.