The work presented in this website is largely grounded in the 3 disciplines listed below. These form the basis of much of my own training and informs the approach I take to social and environmental work. You can also read my Bio here.
Phenomenology is a philosophical tradition launched in the first half of the 20th Century by thinkers such as Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Broadly speaking Phenomenology is the study of phenomena as they appear through our experience. It is the study of the structures of experience and consciousness, and the appearance of things in our experience. We could say that Phenomenology is the study of the world as experienced through human consciousness, or how meaning arises through our lived experience.
In this way, it sees the idea that things in the world have an objective reality that is separate from an experiencing subject, as being a limited way to understand how we make meaning of the world around us. Instead, Phenomenology proposes that the meaning we give to things comes into existence through our relationship to those very things. It suggests we are active participants in the world, continuously co-creating meaning through our engagement with it. In this way Phenomenology provides the foundations for understanding the world around us, through the awareness of our participation with it.
The 18th and 19th Century poet and dramatist JW Goethe is renown for his literary works, but far less for his scientific achievements. Goethe himself felt that his scientific work was his greatest achievement and contribution to the world, yet his scientific work was little understood in his day. Despite this still being largely true today, there is a growing interest in his work and particularly the processes (methods) he used to study natural phenomena.
Goethe developed his scientific work through studies in plants and animal morphology, geology, light (colour) and clouds. He was fascinated by the Scientific activity and findings of his time, of classification and dissection, and took an active interest in the discoveries and works of leading contemporary thinkers. Despite this interest, Goethe sought to move away from the methods of analysing nature founded on categorisation and separation. He instead worked tirelessly to develop ways of knowing phenomena in their wholeness and integrity. Being an artist and a scientist, he sought a way of ‘knowing’ the natural world, that ‘saw’ the poetic and factual in an integrated and fully commensurable way.
Goethe’s approach marked a clear departure from the practice of Science and its sole focus on objectivity as a way of understanding nature. Goethe felt that what was missing was an empathic awareness on the part of scientists in coming to know phenomena more precisely and fully, and on their own terms.
This presents the idea that every phenomenon provides a unique and distinct perspective from which to view the world. Goethe expressed this view in the phrase, “Every phenomenon well perceived, creates a new organ of perception in us”. This suggests the possibility for the ‘scientist’ or observer to grow and develop through his/her engagement with a phenomenon, through the ‘new organ’ that emerges through coming to know a phenomenon in its unique and specific appearance.
Goethe’s approach and perspective seems more relevant today than ever. Our relationship to the environment and often each another, seems to be characterised by fragmentation and disunity. Without a change in perspective, to one that is more capable of recognising and comprehending the nature of relationships and wholeness, it feels difficult to see how we will navigate our way effectively out of the environmental and social challenges we currently face.
I am grateful to Margaret Colquhoun and the staff at the Nature Institute, in particular Craig Holdrege, for introducing me to Goethe’s scientific work, as well as supporting and mentoring my own learning and practice.
Original sketch by Goethe from Goethe-National Museum
Holistic Science is a discipline that acknowledges that complexity and intrinsic values are inherent in the natural world. The discipline aims to offer rigorous modes of knowledge production that are fit for understanding the living world of relationships and qualities. It is founded on the recognition that Western Science and its analysis is dominated by a reductionism that aims to explain the world through its measurable component parts. Furthermore, that this worldview is pervasive and presents humans as being able to predict and control the rest of nature in accurate and sustainable ways.
As a ‘science of qualities’, Holistic Science seeks to complement the practice of mainstream Science by integrating analysis with values and ethics, parts with wholes, nature with culture and facts with wisdom. It aims to create a Science that is fit for understanding the wholeness of life, and one that is convivial (‘with-life’) and participatory.
I was first introduced to Holistic Science when I began studying an MSc (in Holistic Science) at the Schumacher College in 2008/9. I would like to thank all of the College staff, both faculty and not, and my fellow MSc companions for the very special year I had.