What can Goethe teach us about happiness? – Simon Robinson

Last week I had the opportunity to teach at Sustentare Business School in Joinville, Santa Catarina, Brazil. I taught at Sustentare last year, having been invited by Professor Wilmar whose vision has led to the creation and continual development of this small but progressive business school in a part of Brazil which is home to many large manufacturing multinational companies, as well as many software developers too.

I was teaching a class of mainly HR executives and managers, although there were others there too with an interest in this area of organisational development and education, and I was there to teach a module on complexity, chaos, knowledge and Human Resources.

This photo above was from early on in the first class, and I had asked everyone to talk a little bit about what their expectations were for the class. There were a number of different answers, mainly around the theme of how to deal with ever more complex information and knowledge management in the workplace, how to deal with complexity and business strategy, and also simply to learn more about the notion of “complexity” which for many is a word, not surprisingly, with mostly negative connotations.

One person did mention a different aspect of why they were there. Although of course everyone in the class was there for their professional development, one student mentioned that they were there also with a hope of developing personally. I did not really follow this theme up in the class, maybe due to the time available, so I thought I would make a few observations in this article.

For in the classes we talked a lot about Goethe. I was not always explicit when talking about his philosophy, but we played with prisms, were amazed at discovering the difference between his theory of colours to that of Newton, and we also talked about potatoes!

I will come back to the potatoes in a minute, but we also looked at the whole notion of thinking, seeing, information and knowledge. These are all huge words, massive words that we all use every day without thinking about their meaning. But if we are to become experts in knowledge management, and communication and dialogue in organisations, and also creativity and nurturing creativity, we surely need to examine these aspects of human experience really quite profoundly.

The way I approach these ares for students is quite pragmatically, using Stephan Harding’s interpretation of Jung’s four ways of knowing. These four ways of knowing are thinking, feeling and sensing and intuition. There are two axis for a good reason. Think about someone you know who is very academic, very intellectual. There are some people we know who can be so lost in thought, that they can seem at times quite distant, not a part of this world, somehow slightly removed from it.

Think of people on a train or bus lost in their iPads and smart phones. This may just be a temporary situation, but in these moments they are totally lost in their thoughts. I can certainly be like this at times.

What about those people who can be quite emotional, they feel a huge amount, but perhaps they are not always using their thinking faculties, reacting in a situation before thinking through what is being said by someone? That too is an extreme situation or personal characteristic.

As for those who are great artists or photographers, sure many are some of the the greatest observers, seeing things that we can not? They are fully situated in this world, unlike say some of the greatest quantum physicists, who deal with concepts so abstract, that words, symbols, language and mathematics fail them. Their world can only be comprehended in their intuitive faculties.

So here we have four ways of knowing, all of which have good aspects and negative aspects if taken to the extreme. In terms of developing ourselves, perhaps it would be a good idea to look at what are main characteristic or characteristics are, as everyone is a mixture, and then see what we need to do to become more balanced, more in the centre of this model?

This is where Goethe comes in. Goethe the great poet, writer and playwright, who in his mid-twenties, in the later part of the nineteenth century, became one of Germany’s best known authors, and how would become of the greatest writers in the history of Europe, with his epic Faust.

In Germany they have a world Bildung and it can be translated as self-improvement. Not self-improvement maybe in the way we know it now with self-help books promising rapid transformations in your romantic, business and social lives. It is more a word relating to your overall outlook on life, about the need to be culturally, socially, intellectually and morally developed and not just focussed on the material things in life.

As part of Goethe’s dedication to Bildung, he developed a near obsession with perception and observation, really developing these faculties to the full. On my course I was teaching how when we are so stuck in the thinking way of knowing, we sometimes forget or are not aware of just how much our thinking drives our seeing, and also that what we think of as seeing is not a perceptual act, of comprehending what is in the visual field, but an act of perceiving meaning.

So now we come back to the potatoes. In teaching complexity, I move far from the typical mechanistic explanations of complexity and aim to introduce students to one where they can begin to see phenomena organically and dynamically. In science, the emphasis is often on the finished object, where the seeing is an act of seeing dead and inert matter, objects which require a causal and mechanistic explanation. But there are other ways of seeing, dynamic ways of seeing, where the focus is not theory-driven, like Newton’s theory of colours, but where we stay dwelling in the phenomena.

What does this mean? To try and put it simply, it means we try and move into a way of seeing which is like the artist, who really stays in the sensory realm, with a much more direct experience of the world, as opposed to being in the thinking mode, where we can sometimes experience this detachment from the world. To stay in the sensory work is to look through a prism, and see what Goethe saw, not a single spectrum of colour, but two different spectrums, one of cool colours and one of warm colours.

These are shown in the photo above, which is one taken looking through a prism, of a simple block of black and white. Note how when you look at black and white through a prism, you see these warm and cool colours at the boundaries of black and white. For Goethe, these were the primary phenomena to be explained, and not the spectrum which for Goethe was a complex phenomena consisting of the two simple ones combined.

Goethe also used his approach, his delicate empiricism in relation to plants. In doing so, he first stayed dwelling in the sensory realm for far longer than any modern day scientist would. After this stage, he did not go to the thinking realm seeing a theory to explain, he would then move to his intuition, where he would then attempt to grasp the phenomena in his intuition, and this for Goethe was where the true explanations lay, not in reducing the phenomena to a hypothesis which could only suffer from the limitations of language’s inability to truly describe reality.

In understanding potatoes, in Goethe’s way of knowing we come to understand that there are not three potatoes in the picture above. There are of course three separate objects we refer to as potatoes of course, but also there is just the One potato, or maybe to make this easier, there is just the One plant, being itself differently.

This way of seeing is only done in the intuition, since of course there are only three physical objects to be perceived. But Goethe very much did believe that you could encounter the phenomena directly through one’s intuition. What does this mean? Was Goethe just experiencing something subjective? I would say no. I would say he was intuiting directly the living dynamic process that is a plant, a process which is never static, but always creating new versions of itself, but differently. In this case we can say that there is just one potato, being itself differently, and also many. But in organic thinking, what seems like a paradox in fact is not.

What does this mean for happiness? When we experience this way of knowing for the first time, it can feel as if we are going through a massive expansion in our hearts. It can feel that we are breaking out of the prisons of our minds, and that we are being given a much more direct contact with nature. We can not only now comprehend complexity intellectually, we can feel complexity, we can sense complexity, and we can comprehend the totality of the phenomena in our intuition.

This is incredible.

It makes a huge difference when say going for a walk in a park, our out in the countryside. No loner trapped in our intellectual minds, we no longer see the concept tree, but we really see trees and plants and flowers with new eyes. We sense a more direct contact with nature, and can begin to connect not with abstract concepts, but of wondrous dynamic living entities that we can now truly connect with.

In talking to my students about Goethe’s theory of colours, we talked about why the sky is blue. Goethe provides a much different explanation to Newton, which is not necessarily contra to Newton, so I won’t go into the arguments here. I asked the students to look at the sky again, and really appreciate the light blue on the horizon and the darker blues up above. Sometimes we are so lost in our thinking, we fail to notice phenomena which has been right in front of our eyes our whole lifetimes.

Another student said that she would never be able to look at a dish of potatoes again in the same way. Goethe can really transform our thinking and our entire relationship with the world. This is his way of self-improvement, an expansion in our consciousness and awareness. It is something I will continue to teach, since it is sometimes not enough to know that. Sometimes we need to sense it, to feel it and intuit it. Only then will we truly know, and from this path wisdom and happiness spring.

Simon Robinson is the editor of the blog Transition Consciousness (www.transitionconsciousness.org)

2 Respostas para “What can Goethe teach us about happiness? – Simon Robinson

  1. Pingback: What can Goethe teach us about happiness? « The Transition of Consciousness·

  2. Pingback: Reflections on my two days at Sustentare Business School « The Transition of Consciousness·

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