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VINE VOICEon 23 March 2013
Taking Appearance Seriously may be usefully linked to another work by Owen Barfield, Saving the Appearances: A Study in Idolatry. The latter work is a profound meditation on the nature of appearance and its relationship to truth in history, the limits of models in contemporary science, and ultimately a critique of the scientific Western tradition. This book performs the same deed with a different line. Barfield was a philosopher and historian with an interest in language. Bortoft is a physicist and organisation developer with an interest in language via the hermeneutic circle (more of which later). he was also a student of and worked with the eminent physicist and mathematician, David Bohm. Both these books are profoundly intelligent, likely to shock by so convincingly shifting the reader's understanding of the world that he or she may never be the same again.

This work (Taking Appearance Seriously) should also be read in relationship to Bortoft's earlier work, The Wholeness of Nature: Goethe's Way of Science. The latter introduces major themes that are then picked up and deepened in the new work. I would recommend the reader with no introduction to the subject to perhaps begin with The Wholeness of Nature, an introduction to Goethean science. Like Barfield's book, it takes a history and philosophy of science approach to understanding the contemporary world. It introduced me to profoundly important ideas about the nature of wholeness that have been exceedingly useful in my practical work as well as giving me profound new insights about the application of Goethe's method is a scientific and practical tool, methodology and philosophy.

So what do these thinkers have to say? The Wholeness of Nature introduces the reader to the nature and reality of wholeness as a phenomenon of the cosmos and contrasts wholeness with the standard scientific practice that sees the world as a collection of parts that is assembled to make larger systems. From the wholeness perspective, (most) things begin as wholes, so that their parts are better understood as differentiated details having the same nature as the whole. Think for example of your own body, which began with a single whole cell out of which the body with all the differentiated details of the organs and the cells that form them emerges. The hologram is one more amongst many examples that he gives. Bortoft's insight about wholeness derives from the earlier work by David Bohm (Wholeness and the Implicate Order (Routledge Classics)). The scientific history demonstrates conclusively the way science took a particular line not because it had an overwhelming fundamental truth about it but because it represented a cultural convenience, and by the way was incredibly practical. This book also introduces us to the hermeneutic circle, in which the whole depends on the part while the part depends on the whole - no body without cells, no cells without body, a phenomenon of surprising diversity. It is the observation of phenomena that Goethe brings his scientific method to.

In the new work, Bortoft complements this with a deeper examination of other thinkers (and his own development of them) who share these principles, most notably the work of the phenomenological philosophers Martin Heidegger and Gadamer. The central theme of the work concerns the nature of dynamical thinking in relationship to an understanding of a dynamical world. If the word `dynamical' seems a little awkward it is because he is trying to deal with a subject whose awkwardness lies in the fact that no one ever really thinks of it or notices the phenomenon. The process of explication for the reader is almost painful at times, and I might have wished for a simpler less detailed account, but I did notice that the effect of working through the intense and repeated descriptions had the effect of absolutely illuminating and making real the subject he was dealing with. It's not unlikely that the typical reader of this review will struggle to understand a brief explanation now. But here goes: whenever we experience something, a tree, a person shaking our hand, were presents itself to our conceptual consciousness is what Bortoft calls "downstream". To quote another philosopher who has dealt with the same subject and whom I am sure he must have read), Rudolf Steiner, (Intuitive Thinking as a Spiritual Path: A Philosophy of Freedom (Classics in Anthroposophy)) it is a 'finished' and consequently 'dead' thought. But this is convenient (if tragic): we know it's a tree, what more is there to know? Well, knowing it like this means we have effectively closed off the dynamical nature of treeness that emerges in countless tree forms. We have abstracted the world into a word and in the process lost the world. We then base our science, philosophy and actions on this deadened, denatured, finished and downstream conception. Bortoft's thorough intention is to encourage us to find our way back upstream and in the process to re-conceive the nature of all life, with profoundly practical implications (science, innovation, education).

I regard this as one of the most important books I've read and thoroughly commend it. Six stars.
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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.
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on 19 January 2013
A wonderful primer about phenomenology, a philosophy that could heal the dualistic, mechanistic approach of so much modern thought. It also contains a very good clear explanation of the history of the philosophical underpinnings of our current scientific method and the mechanistic implications for how we live our lives. This is followed by a rather wordy (of necessity) but, I believe, simplifying explication of the basis of phenomenology. But don't expect to 'grok' phenomenology quickly. It may take years and this is a great starter for ten. Remember this is no small project, given that our dualistic, mechanistic thinking gives rise to many current problems, ecology and the current highly driven financial life to name but two. Enjoy - I did.
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This is a remarkable book that deserves close study and repeated readings. I read it slowly over a few weeks without taking notes and shall read it again a second time, with pen and notebook at hand. Bortoft was one of the true philosophers of our time and in this short but deep work he brings together his own insights and those of Goethe, Heidegger, Gadamer as well as a host of other thinkers in a clear and transforming exposition of the nature of 'participatory thinking'. This is a kind of thinking that is at the heart of western esoteric thought but also runs through the tradition of 'poetic thinking' in the west. Readers unfamiliar with this kind of thought can find an excellent introduction in Bortoft's earlier work The Wholeness of Nature: Goethe's Way of Science; another useful and important source are the writings of Owen Barfield. I had the pleasure of meeting Bortoft briefly a few years ago at the British Library and wish I had the chance to speak with him at length. In lieu of that, I, and the rest of us, have his books. The kind of thinking Bortoft wishes to introduce us to offers a way out of the cul-de-sac western consciousness has been stuck in for the last few centuries. Readers who are open to his ideas and who take on the challenge of actualizing them can, in a very real sense, change 'the world'. I can't recommend this book highly enough.
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on 7 December 2012
Having read and enjoyed Bortoft's previous book I feel I have waited a long time for this one and it is well worth waiting for.
A deeply thought through exploration of phenomenology and hermeneutics that is both accessible and compelling in describing how we miss the essence of what we see.
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on 25 December 2014
Got this book today, for Xmas! :) And about a third through it. It is utterly captivating. If you have ever read Barfield or Steiner and felt that you didn't quite grasp the seeing aspect, then this book makes it crystal clear. Very well-written and considered. The ideas feel like they've been simmering a long time. An important cornerstone book. Thank you Henri Bortoft.
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