“The role of the organizing idea in cognitive perception is of such an active kind that if the idea changes, then what is seen changes.”
— Henri Bortoft (1996, p.142)
If we want to understand just how deeply our worldview influences the way we see the world and act in it, we need to understand the power of the organizing ideas that shape how we see the world. In The Wholeness of Nature, Henri Bortoft emphasizes that organizing ideas are so powerful that a mental or cognitive change results in a changed perception of the material world to the extent that the material world seems to change. “In this case what is seen is changed from within the seeing itself, and not by addition of a further sensory factor” (Bortoft, 1996, p.142). Bortoft explains: “Far from there being direct access to facts by sense perception alone, there is actually a nonsensory factor in every fact. Far from being idea-less, there is an organizing idea in every act of cognitive perception” (Bortoft, 1996, p.145).
What is important here is to understand that perception is not, as often assumed, a one-way process in which, for example in the case of visual perception, we open our eyes and the world enters us. What we really see when we open our eyes is our own making-sense of what there is. The range of visual stimuli we can perceive within the biological limits of visual perception reduces complexity.
Simultaneously our cognitive involvement in the process of perception further reduces this complexity. Our organizing ideas make sense of the perceived by organizing it into a pattern we recognize. The very act of seeing, or perceiving, already has a non-visual, entirely conceptual component. Our conception crucially affects our perception.
To illustrate this non-sensory, cognitive element of perception, I would like to ask the reader to take a close look at the [black & white circle above]. In looking at the image you will find yourself in one of two categories. Either, you perceive simply a circle with irregular black spots on a white background (the equivalent of a white net-like pattern over a black circle), or you are in the category of readers that immediately see a part of an animal within the pattern. Take [ your time to calmly behold the black & white image above] before reading on! [What can you see in that pattern of black & white?]
Once you are provided with the organizing idea ‘head of a giraffe’, your perception of the image will change as soon as you recognize a pattern described by that organizing idea. You become able to organize the black spots into the perception of the head of a giraffe, looking at you with her right eye, her nose pointing at four o’clock, the neck entering between six and seven o’clock and the eye on the twelve o’clock line about five millimetres up from the centre of the circle. It is an interesting exercise and experience of perception, to switch back and forth between making yourself see the giraffe and making it disappear again by blending it with its background.
The crucial point is: there is no giraffe yet we can see it. There is a non-sensory element involved in seeing and perceiving. The pattern of the black dots does not change, yet the organizing idea of a giraffe structures the seemingly random dots. It allows us to discern a pattern. As the concept of what there is to see changes, our actual perception of the image changes. If we take this experience as an analogy for the impact that our organizing ideas and concepts have on the way we perceive reality we can begin to understand the power of [cultural] meta-design, design which changes organizing ideas, which will be covered in a later chapter.
[This article is an excerpt from the Worldview Dimension of Gaia Education´s online programme in Design for Sustainability. The course is based on four dimensions plus a design studio. I wrote this course for Gaia Education in 2012 and revised and updated this dimension in 2016.]
“The error of empiricism rests on the fact that what it takes to be material objects are condensations of meaning. When we see a chair, for example, we are seeing a condensed meaning and not simply a physical body. Since meanings are not objects of sensory perception, seeing a chair is not the sensory experience we imagine it to be. What empiricism, and common sense, miss through mistaking meaning for matter is the dimension of the mind in cognitive perception.”
— Henri Bortoft (1996, pp. 53–54, emphasis added by Daniel Wahl)
Owen Barfield referred to the modern predisposition to confuse meaning with the physical objects to which it is assigned as “idolatry” (Barfield, 1988). Bortoft suggests that our “presupposition that cognitive process can be understood in the framework of the Cartesian divorce of subject and object, the separation of consciousness from world” keeps us from becoming conscious of the active roles of organizing ideas in our perception of a meaningful world (Bortoft, 1996, p.54).
Henri Bortoft distinguishes between quantity and quality focussed organizing ideas. He explains that the quantity focussed organizing ideas lead us to classify nature into sets of homogenous parts, which we actually “intellectually superimpose on nature.” In doing so we loose sight of the qualitative relationships in nature and begin to relate to “an intellectual rearrangement of nature that reduces it to the purely quantitative” and therefore to “parts which are external to one another” and separate from each other. Bortoft emphasizes that this way of seeing “certainly gives us power over nature, but it has the effect of separating us from nature. We begin to experience ourselves as being separate and essentially different from nature, while nature in turn begins to seem lifeless and empty” (Bortoft, 1996, p.174).
The “solid object mode of conception” is yet another important organizing idea, which most people have grown so used to employing that they are absolutely unaware that it is only a way of conceiving of reality rather than reality itself.
Bortoft suggests that a quantitative, measuring, analytical way of seeing predisposes us to falling into the habit of a solid object mode of conception. By regarding quantity as “the fundamental category we automatically reduce nature to matter.” Bortoft calls atomism “a container that carries the quantitative way of seeing” and emphasizes that “nature has been reduced to matter by modern science, so that we now think they are the same thing.” The quantitative, the solid body world, regarded as being external to us, all correspond to one particular mode of conception.
“It cannot be stressed sufficiently that the world of solid bodies is not given as such, but that a specific way of seeing discloses this world. We take it for granted that the world of solid bodies is the world, existing as such independently, whereas it is in fact the world that appears in the light of the ‘solid world’ mode of conception”.
— Henri Bortoft (1996, p.176)
Holistic and analytical modes of consciousness
“Caught up in a mass of abstractions, our attention hypnotized by a host of human-made technologies that only reflect us back to ourselves, it is all too easy for us to forget our carnal inherence in a more- than-human matrix of sensations and sensibilities. Our bodies have formed themselves in delicate reciprocity with the manifold textures, sounds, and shapes of an animate earth — our eyes have evolved in subtle interaction with other eyes, as our ears are attuned by their very structure to the howling of the wolves and the honking of the geese. To shut ourselves off from these other voices, to continue by our life styles to condemn these other sensibilities to the oblivion of extinction, is to rob our own senses of their integrity, and to rob our minds of their coherence. We are human only in contact and conviviality, with what is not human.”
— David Abram (1997, p.22, emphasis added by Daniel Wahl).
The problem of epistemology that has preoccupied Western philosophy arises directly out of the Cartesian subject-object-separation. Bortoft explains how Edmund Husserl’s work on phenomenology highlighted that we cannot understand consciousness if we perceive it “in the manner of a natural object” and “imagine an empty consciousness confronting an external world” (Bortoft, 1996, p.54).
“The fundamental discovery on which phenomenology is based is that consciousness has the structure of intentionality — it would be better to say that consciousness is intentionality. This is often expressed by saying that consciousness is always “conscious of.” In other words, consciousness is always directed towards an object. Hence in cognitive perception there is an indissoluble unity between the conscious mind and the object of which it is conscious.”
— Henri Bortoft (1996, p.54, emphasis added by Daniel Wahl).
Bortoft distinguishes between two major modes of consciousness which are complementary. He points out: “In our technical-scientific culture we have specialized in the development of only one of these modes, to which our education system is geared almost exclusively.” Bortoft refers to this mode as the “analytical mode of consciousness.” He explains:
“…the analytical mode of consciousness … develops in conjunction with our experience of perceiving and manipulating solid bodies. The internalization of our experience of the closed boundaries of such bodies leads to a way of thinking which naturally emphasizes distinction and separation. Since the fundamental characteristic of the world of solid bodies is externality — i.e., everything is external to everything else — then this way of thinking is necessarily analytical. For the same reason it is also necessarily sequential and linear, proceeding from one element to another in a piecemeal fashion — the principle of mechanical causality is a typical way of thinking in this analytical mode of consciousness. Henri Bergson noticed the affinity between logical relations with concepts and spatial relations with solid bodies, and he concluded that “our logic hardly does more than express the most general relations among solids.” The principles of logic — identity (A is A), noncontradiction (not at the same time A and not-A), and excluded middle (either A or not A) — are extrapolations from these limited circumstances which are assumed to hold universally. For this reason the mode of consciousness associated with logical thinking is necessarily analytical.”
— Henri Bortoft (1996, p.61)
Phenomenology is primarily concerned with the systematic reflection on and study of the structures of consciousness and the phenomena that appear in acts of consciousness. (image left — etching by Escher; image right — the duck-rabbit)
Bortoft also points out that language itself draws us into an analytical mode of consciousness. “A basic structure of modern languages is their subject-predicate grammar, which has the effect of dividing experience into separate elements which are then treated as if they exist independently of each other.” Bortoft emphasizes: “the grammatical structure of language articulates the world analytically. It discloses the analytical world. But we believe this to be ‘the way the world is,’ independently of language, because language itself is transparent in the act of disclosing this world” (Bortoft, 1996, p.62).
Furthermore, the linear and sequential character of language predisposes us to analytical modes of consciousness. Bortoft suggests “the analytical mode of consciousness, therefore, corresponds to the discursive thought of what, for completeness, should be called the verbal-intellectual mind” (Bortoft, 1996, p.63). The second mode of consciousness that is accessible by all human beings Bortoft calls “the holistic mode of consciousness.” He suggests:
“The holistic mode of consciousness is complementary to this analytical one. By contrast, this mode is nonlinear, simultaneous, intuitive instead of verbal-intellectual, and concerned more with relationships than with the discrete elements that are related. It is important to realize that this mode of consciousness is a way of seeing, and as such it can only be experienced in its own terms. In particular, it cannot be understood by the verbal-intellectual mind because this functions in the analytical mode of consciousness, for which it is not possible to appreciate adequately what it means to say that a relationship can be experienced as something real in itself. In an analytical mode of consciousness it is the elements which are related that stand out in experience, compared with which the relationship is but a shadowy abstraction. The experience of a relationship as such is only possible through a transformation from a piecemeal way of thought to a simultaneous perception of the whole. Such a transformation amounts to a restructuring of consciousness itself. … Whereas we imagine movement and change analytically, as if the process really consisted of a linear sequence of instantaneously stationary states (like a sequence of snapshots), when movement and change are experienced holistically, they are experienced as a whole. The elements which are experienced simultaneously in this mode are thus dynamically related to each other, and this dynamical simultaneity replaces the static simultaneity of the analytical mode.”
— Henri Bortoft (1996, pp.63–64).
Bortoft points out that in order to enter into a holistic mode of consciousness we have to be able to switch out of the analytical mode of consciousness. This can be done through paying attention to sensory experience as it is experienced. Contemplative meditation or mindfulness is a methodology for shifting into a holistic mode of consciousness (Bortoft, 1996, p.65). In a holistic mode of consciousness the mind begins to function intuitively instead of intellectually. Bortoft uses Ornstein’s definition of intuition as “knowledge without recourse to inference”, which is linked to a “simultaneous perception of the whole.” Leonard Ornstein connected “the intuitive mind with the holistic mode of consciousness — as the intellectual mind is linked with the analytical mode (Bortoft, 1996, p.67).
“We miss the dimension of mind which is active in our lives … The dimension of mind in cognitive perception is as invisible to us to begin with as the movement of the Earth. Just as it seems so evident to us that everything we see about us is “just there,” i.e., object instead of meaning, and that cognitive perception is just sense perception. We are accustomed to thinking of mind as if it were inside us — “in our heads.” But it is the other way around. We live within a dimension of mind which is for the most part, as invisible to us as the air we breathe. We usually only discover it when there is a breakdown.”
— Henri Bortoft (1996, p.132; emphasis added by Daniel Wahl).
Note: This is an excerpt from the Worldview Dimension of Gaia Education’s online course in Design for Sustainability. In 2012 I was asked to rewrite this dimension as part of a collaboration between Gaia Education and the Open University of Catalunya (UOC) and in 2016 I revised it again into this current version. The next opportunity to join the course is with the start of the Worldview Dimension on May 21st, 2018. You might also enjoy my book ‘Designing Regenerative Cultures’.
This excerpt is by and large a summary of the work of Henri Bortoft, one of the wisest men I ever met, who literally expanded my consciousness during the five weeks I had the pleasure to learn from him on the Masters in Holistic Science at Schumacher College and on a short course on A Science of Qualities that same year (2001–2002). I am forever grateful to Henri for introducing me to a dynamic way of seeing. His last book Taking Appearances Seriously — The Dynamic Way of Seeing in Goethe and European Thought is also a must-read!
Following perception up-stream: organizing ideas & the coming-into-being of phenomena was originally published in Hacker Noon on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.