I want to show that it is possible to move beyond object thinking and develop what I will call living thinking. Living thinking is a participatory way of knowing that transcends the dichotomies of man-nature, subject-object, or mind-matter, which are so ingrained in the Western mind and form the bedrock of object thinking. One of my main guides in developing a participatory, transformative, and living way of relating to the world has been the work of the scientist and poet J. W. von Goethe.―Craig Holdrege, Thinking Like a Plant: A Living Science for Life
Craig Holdrege described Goethe’s approach to living thinking in a talk at Schumacher College:1
Now, what I’d like to do is to bring together the significance of Goethe’s approach. His different facets. So, one the on hand, he was able to see things in relationships and in a dynamism. … How does this relates to that? How does an organism transform? An organism, a living being, lives through transformation. Can I see how it transforms, and yet remain an integrated whole? So, this very dynamic way of looking. When I say looking at the world, it’s really wrong, because the world is not an act. He is participating in the phenomenon of relationship and dynamism in nature. He is participating in that.
So, his approach is a participatory, or … dialogic, approach. … He is giving himself over the the phenomena, perceiving it very direct, gentle – what he calls gentle empiricism – going with the phenomena, but the thinking goes with that. The thinking is in that. The thinking isn’t abstracted at a distance, but participating in, and realizes what’s happening. This is where is says: My perceiving is a thinking, and my thinking is a perceiving. … It’s objective, not by distancing, but by connecting, becoming intimate with the object. The object looses its object character, and it becomes a partner in a dialogue.
So, this approach is different from what we normally think of a science today. Event if many scientists can do this in their own ways, but it doesn’t become part of scientific discipline. Because what this means is that the scientist needs to develop.
I’d like to let Goethe speak again: If we want to behold nature in a ??? way, we must follow her example and becomes mobile and malleable as Nature herself. She has something to teach us. We have to follow her example and change ourselves.
It’s not about us coming with a particular paradigm, or theory, and impressing that upon Nature, but trying to enter into the phenomena to see what they have to tell us, and to try to adapt our sensibilities to the phenomena themselves. … What’s showing itself here in the natural world?
So, he has this sense of the greatness of the world: An organic being is externally so many-sided and internally so manifolded inexhaustible that we can not choose enough points of view to behold it.
We need to go at it from different sides. Look at the plant in different development stages, in different contexts. Looking at the animals in its relations to its environments. … So this gets into this weaving from different points of view to be able to begin to fathom this manifolded inexhaustible nature of organic life.
He continuous: We cannot develop enough organs in ourselves in order to examine it―the organic being―without killing it. … He means…mental organs, in English perhaps. … It is the sensibility, the way of thinking, that we can begin to learn by following the example of nature, and that forms an organ of perception in us, that we begin to see more the living qualities of the world. And that’s what it’s about! … I am speaking from the biological sciences.
So, there is a delicate empiricism: It makes itself utterly identical with its object, thereby becoming true theory―meaning, understanding―but this enhancement of our mental powers belongs to a highly evolved age. It’s clear this is not easy. The intellectual and analytical capacities we have today… This morphodynamic way of thinking, contextual seeing, that’s what he saw we needed to develop. He had a gift, but it was work for Goethe, and it’s certainly work for us who are trying to practice this approach. That you come up against your own limits, and you try to overcome them through continually going back to the phenomena, immersing yourself in the processes, and trying to listen to what the phenomena are telling you. That’s the dialogue part. The plant doesn’t speak with words. The animal doesn’t speak with words. It speaks with its processes, with its forms. The questions is: Can we hear that? Can we understand it?
So, this element of…the metamorphism of the scientist. Science is a process of development of human capacities…to interrogate nature. And I would call it a nature world friendly approach, where one is tries to participate in that which nature has to show, and then to develop one’s ideas, and then, of course, one’s actions in relation to that. That seems to me to be very important!
Today, where the tendency of the fragmentation, what we do in nature is to bring fragmentation. The way we think about the world is often fragmented. We have all sorts of different opinions and theories, and the question of actual conversation, actually trying to hear what the other are saying―it can be a plant, another human being, a landscape―that we integrate ourselves consciously into the organic nature of life. I really think that is what Goethe’s approach is about.
It’s not about having to follow exactly what Goethe did, of course. There was no ‘one’ method,…but there is an intentionality of the way to turn towards the world in a new way. That, I think, is very germinal still, as germinal as lots of potency.
So, I’d like to close by letting Goethe speak: As human beings we know ourselves only insofar as we know the world. We perceive the world only in ourselves, and ourselves only in the world. Every new object clearly seen opens up a new organ of perception in us.
Thank you! I’m done.
1. Goethe and the Evolution of Science with Craig Holdrege, YouTube, https://youtu.be/AmzXTuoqjMU?t=2810, YouTube. Accessed: 2022-11-04. Published: 2021-03-16.