on 23 June 2013
Henri Bortoft is a physicist and former student of David Bohm with an interest in continental philosophy. He is also a teacher at the Schumacher College in Britain. Bortoft's most well-known book is "The Wholeness of Nature: Goethe's Way of Science". His recent oeuvre "Taking Appearance Seriously" covers much of the same ground, but the emphasis has shifted from Goethe to Gadamer. It's also shorter than the Goethe book.
I originally assumed that Bortoft was an Anthroposophist, since both his works are published by Floris Books, an Anthroposophical press. In "Taking Appearance Seriously", Bortoft clarifies his relation to Anthroposophy, by stating that he isn't interested in the esoteric speculations of Rudolf Steiner, while regarding Steiner's strictly philosophical works (especially those dealing with Goethe's worldview) as very insightful. Bortoft seems to bemoan the fact that Steiner later left philosophy for somewhat more odd pursuits.
I'm not an expert on the subject-matter of this book, so I can't say if Bortoft's interpretations of Goethe, Heidegger and Gadamer are correct. I suspect that the author's project is to somehow fuse Heideggerian phenomenology with a Romantic evolutionism, using Steiner as a middleman. Nothing wrong with that, per se. I also get the impression that Bortoft's perspective is at bottom spiritual. Although he never explicitly ties his worldview with spirituality, it sounds like a dynamic form of pantheism. Indeed, it makes little sense outside such a context.
The book is difficult to summarize, but its main point is to do away with dualism, including subject-object, being-becoming or essence-appearance. At the same time, Bortoft wants to avoid relativism. To Bortoft, there is no distinction between an objective world "out there" and the way this world appears to us. The appearance (coming-into-being) of phenomena *is* the world. There is nothing beyond it or behind it. But doesn't the world appear differently to different observers? Isn't that relativism? Bortoft answers no: the world actually does appear in various forms and guises, each being equally true, each also being the same world.
The world is always One, but it's a "multiplicity in unity", which necessarily takes different forms. The world isn't a homogenous whole, seen from different perspectives by limited observers. No, it really is ontologically multiple. It's also dynamic, forever becoming and appearing anew. This sounds familiar to students of Hinduism, Buddhism or the ACIM, but Bortoft emphatically does not say that the phenomena we experience are illusions, or only relatively real. On the contrary, the various "worlds" which appear to us are robustly ontologically real, despite being completely different from each other and constantly evolving. A "Western" form of pantheism? At one point, Bortoft's make a positive reference to Ferrer's and Tarnas' "Revisioning Transpersonal Theory", reviewed by me elsewhere.
Bortoft applies his "dynamic way of seeing" to both the multiplicity found in nature, to literature and poetry, and to language. Thus, he rejects the idea that we should be looking for "what the author really intended" when analyzing a novel or a poem. This creates a dualism between the real meaning (forever beyond our grasp) and various interpretations (which are wholly subjective). Rather, a work of literature has multivalent meanings which change and evolve over time, all being equally true. Apparently, this is what Gadamer referred to as "tradition". (As a side point, this makes me wonder what Radical Orthodoxy, with its love for Gadamer, really means when talking about Christian "tradition"? See my review of "Introducing Radical Orthodoxy" by James K. A. Smith.)
I admit that I'm not entirely satisfied with Bortoft's arguments. They are easier to apply to some phenomena than others. It's easy enough to see how this hermeneutic could be applied to poetry, which often uses multivalent or evocative language. It's less obvious how it can be applied to, well, more or less everything else. Thus, when discussing language, Bortoft argues that language makes the world appear - at least to a human, there is no "world" outside language, not because language limits our perspective on a world "out there", but because no world can exist unless made to appear in and through language. Bortoft's example is a deaf and blind girl who felt something cold on her hands, and had a kind of revelatory experience when her teacher spelled the word "water" in her palm. This, evidently, was the appearing of water in her world. But the phenomenon we choose to call "water" clearly existed (and even had physical effects on the subject) already before the naming, making the example feel somewhat awkward. Bortoft also admits at two points in the book that there are bad or erroneous interpretations of literary texts, but how is *that* possible if everything is multiplicity-in-unity? What is the objective criterion, standing above the various interpretations? To Bortoft, plants are an example of the One being many, but there doesn't seem to be any objective criterion for "good" or "bad" plants. At another point, Bortoft says that what is "moral" depends on the situation. Perhaps the One sometimes manifests in a destructive, ridiculous or downright evil way? If so, nobody can claim that a seemingly crackpot interpretation of Goethe, the U.S. constitution or the Bible really is such.
I'm not saying "Taking Appearance Seriously" is a bad book. It's probably the only readable book on phenomenology of any stripe I've seen. For that reason, I give it four stars. Nor can it be denied that Bortoft makes interesting or even valid points. Sure, the world is "multivalent". (Just look at the bewildering variety of schools within phenomenology!) But how far does the multivalence go? That is the question.