Goethean science

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Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, although primarily known as a literary figure, did research in morphology, anatomy, and optics, and also developed a phenomenological approach to science and to knowledge in general.

In his 1792 essay "The experiment as mediator between subject and object", Goethe developed an original philosophy of science, which he used in his research. The essay underscores his experiential standpoint. "The human being himself, to the extent that he makes sound use of his senses, is the most exact physical apparatus that can exist."[1]

His scientific works include his 1790 Metamorphosis of Plants and his 1810 book Theory of Colors. His work in optics, and his polemics against the reigning Newtonian theory of optics, were poorly received by the scientific establishment of his time.

Arthur Schopenhauer expanded on Goethe's research in optics using a different methodology in his On Vision and Colors.

Rudolf Steiner presents Goethe's approach to science as phenomenological in the Kürschner edition of Goethe's writings.[clarification needed] Steiner elaborated on this in the books Goethean Science (1883)[2] and Theory of Knowledge Implicit in Goethe's World-Conception (1886).[3] in which he emphasizes the need of the perceiving organ of intuition in order to grasp Goethe's biological archetype (i.e. The Typus).

Steiner's branch of Goethean Science was extended by Oskar Schmiedel and Wilhelm Pelikan, who did research using Steiner's interpretations.

Ludwig Wittgenstein's discussions of Goethe's Theory of Colors were published as Bemerkungen über die Farben (Remarks on Color)[4]

As one of the many precursors in the history of evolutionary thought, Goethe writes in Story of My Botanical Studies (1831):

The ever-changing display of plant forms, which I have followed for so many years, awakens increasingly within me the notion: The plant forms which surround us were not all created at some given point in time and then locked into the given form, they have been given… a felicitous mobility and plasticity that allows them to grow and adapt themselves to many different conditions in many different places.[5]

Andrew Dickson White also writes with respect to evolutionary thought, in A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1896):

About the end of the eighteenth century fruitful suggestions and even clear presentations of this or that part of a large evolutionary doctrine came thick and fast, and from the most divergent quarters. Especially remarkable were those from Erasmus Darwin in England, Maupertuis in France, Oken in Switzerland, and Herder, and, most brilliantly of all, from Goethe in Germany.[6]

Goethe's vision of holistic science inspired biologist and paranormal researcher Rupert Sheldrake.

He went to an Anglican boarding school and then took biology at Cambridge, studying "life" by killing animals and then grinding them up to extract their DNA. This was troubling. Rescue came when a friend turned him on to Goethe. This old German's 18th century vision of "holistic science" appealed to the young Brit very much. Sheldrake used Goethe to investigate how the lilies of the field actually become lilies of the field.[7]

American philosopher Walter Kaufmann argued that Freud's psychoanalysis was a "poetic science" in Goethe's sense.[8][9]

In 1998, David Seamon and Arthur Zajonc wrote Goethe's way of science: a phenomenology of nature[10]

Biologist Brian Goodwin (1931-2009) in his book How the Leopard Changed Its Spots : The Evolution of Complexity claimed that organisms as dynamic systems are the primary agents of creative evolutionary adaptation, in the book Goodwin stated: "The ideas I am developing in this book are very much in the Goethean spirit."[11]


  1. ^ Goethe, Johann (October 1995). Miller, Douglas, ed. Scientific Studies (Goethe: The Collected Works, Vol. 12), p.57. Princeton University Press. 
  2. ^ Rudolf Steiner, Goethean Science. Mercury Press, 1988 ISBN 0-936132-92-2, ISBN 978-0-936132-92-1 e-text
  3. ^ e-text
  4. ^ Bemerkungen über die Farben , ed. by G.E.M. Anscombe (1977) Remarks on Colour ISBN 0-520-03727-8. Remarks on Goethe's Theory of Colours.
  5. ^ Frank Teichmann (tr. Jon McAlice) "The Emergence of the Idea of Evolution in the Time of Goethe" first published in Interdisciplinary Aspects of Evolution, Urachhaus (1989)
  6. ^ Andrew Dickson White, A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom Vol.1 p.62 (1896)
  7. ^ "Rupert Sheldrake: The delightful crackpot" by David Bowman, Salon.com
  8. ^ Walter Arnold Kaufmann Goethe, Kant, and Hegel: Discovering the Mind Transaction Publishers, 1991 ISBN 0-88738-370-X, ISBN 978-0-88738-370-0 [1]
  9. ^ Walter Kaufmann, Freud, Adler, and Jung p109 (Discovering the Mind, Volume 3) Transaction Publishers, 1992 ISBN 0-88738-395-5, ISBN 978-0-88738-395-3 [2]
  10. ^ David Seamon, Arthur Zajonc, Goethe's way of science: a phenomenology of nature Suny series in environmental and architectural phenomenology SUNY Press, 1998 ISBN 0-7914-3681-0, ISBN 978-0-7914-3681-3
  11. ^ How the Leopard Changed Its Spots : The Evolution of Complexity, Brian Goodwin, Princeton University Press, 2001, p. 136 ISBN 0-691-08809-8

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