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.

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.


By the middle of the 1700’s, Western philosophy had reached an ethical and epistemological cul-de-sac. The Enlightenment or Age of Reason was based on a static view of human nature, an increasingly mechanical view of the universe (based on Copernican astronomy, Galilean mechanics and Newtonian physics) and a linear view of the progress of scientific knowledge (based on a mechano-material, reductionist approach). This rationalist approach, what one commentator has termed the ‘one-eyed, color blind’ perspective of the world,[1] raised fundamental issues about “God, freedom and immortality” (Kant) of growing concern to a culture undergoing significant economic, political and cultural transformation. The scientific method that had worked well with inert nature (Bacon’s natura naturata), was less successful in seeking to understand vital nature (natura naturans). At the same time, the rational-empirical model based on the predominance of mentative thinking (German: sinnen) via the intellect (German: Sinn), started by Descartes and advanced most notably in France, was leading to confusion and doubt rather than clarity - equally rational arguments could be made for widely divergent propositions or conceptions. The more empirical approach favored in England (Hume) had led to the view that reality is sense-based, including the mind, that what we perceive is only a mental representation of what is real, and what is real we can never really know. As one observer summarizes, there were two ‘games’ being played in philosophy at the time - one rational and one empirical, both of which led to total skepticism and an epistemological crisis.[2]

The Kantian Problem[edit]

Immanuel Kant in Germany undertook a major rescue operation to preserve the validity of knowledge derived via reason (science), as well as of knowledge going beyond the rational mind, that is of human liberty and of life beyond simply an expression of ‘the chance whirlings of unproductive particles’ (Coleridge). Kant’s writings had an immediate and major impact on Western philosophy and triggered a philosophical movement known as German idealism (Fichte, Hegel, Schelling), which sought to overcome, to transcend the chasm Kant had formalized between the sense-based and the super-sensible worlds in his attempt to ‘save the appearances’ (Owen Barfield), that is, to preserve the validity of scientific or rational knowledge as well as that of faith. Kant’s solution was an epistemological dualism: we cannot know the thing-in-itself (Das Ding an Sich) beyond our mental representation of it and while there is a power (productive imagination - productiv Einbildungskraft) that produced a unity (“transcendental unity of apperception”), we cannot know or experience it in itself, but can only see its manifestations and create representations about it in our mind. The realm beyond the senses also could not be known via reason, but only via faith. To seek to do so would amount to what Kant termed an ‘adventure of reason’.[2]

Goethe’s Approach to Vital Nature[edit]

Goethe undertook this ‘adventure of reason’, starting with the crisis in botany (classification or taxonomy), and in so doing also “wagered a sweeping theory about nature itself.”[3]

Goethe was concerned about the increasing specialization in science and the emphasis on the accumulation of data such as represented in his day by the Linnaean botanic taxonomic system, Systema naturae, at the expense of a deeper understanding of relationships and associations. For Goethe this approach, based on outer characteristics and then only selected ones, led to epistemic impoverishment and a reduction of human knowledge.[3] What was needed was the ability to derive meaning from the voluminous data by looking at it from a different perspective (a new theoria, from Greek for "way of seeing"). Linnaean taxonomy was already coming under criticism from Comte de Buffon, who argued that this mechanistic classification of the outer forms of nature (natura naturata) needed to be replaced by a study of the interrelation of natural forces and natural historical change.[4]

For Goethe, the production of new knowledge is inseparable from its organization and history, a Geschichte des Denkens und Begreifens (a history of thinking and conceptualization).[3] Knowledge is about association, not about separation, as Coleridge also was at pains to explain in his Essays on Method (see Romanticism and epistemology). While a scalar arrangement of things was part of a valid scientific method, this arrangement had to be carried out under a correct organizing idea (Bacon’s lumen siccum), itself grounded in Nature, or natural law (the foundation of which is polarity). This organizing idea or archetype was to be discerned via a living interaction with Nature, through “the labor of experimentation”.[2] For Goethe one does not ‘abandon’ Nature herself and fancy a mechanism and then test this hypothesis via an ‘artificial experience’ that ‘tears’ individual manifestations out of the meaningful context of the whole (Newton’s color hypothesis). Instead, the scientist must adopt a living approach that can enter into the phenomenon (living essence of nature) and discern the underlying pattern (Ur-phänomen); he must allow the phenomena to show themselves as to their inherent order and logic (objective nature), which is about movement, activity rather than objects. While this method is not seemingly ‘objective’ in the sense of quantification, it is, nonetheless, equally rigorous as regards the matter of qualities.[2]

Out of this direct, living approach to Nature an understanding arose using the methodology of the ‘fine arts’ (Coleridge) that is able to go beyond the outer form of things (natura naturata) and discern their inner nature (natura naturans) and relate the two to reveal the unity underlying all of Nature (a real unity where each part contains the whole within it, the whole becoming clearer with each part adduced, rather than the false unity made up of the mechanical addition of parts (Bortoft).

Goethe’s New Way of Cognition[edit]

What science faced with its accumulative data approach in the 1700’s was an overabundance (Wissenzuwachs) not only of discrete data about things, but also of hypotheses as to what it all meant; what was missing was the deeper knowledge (Erkenntnisslehre) about their relationship (to each other and man), that is, their meaning. Goethe, with his methodology of observation of human nature (‘fine arts’), sought to bring this approach to bear on Mother Nature. For example, drawing from his novel, ‘Elective Affinities’ (Wahlverwandschaften), Goethe discerned a geheime Verwandschaft (hidden relationship) of parts that explains how one form can transform into another form whilst being part of an underlying archetypal form (Ur-phänomen). It is this organizing idea or form that guides the consideration of the parts; it is a Bild or virtual image that "emerges and re-emerges from the interaction of experience and ideas" [3] This consideration is a special type of thinking (noetic ideation or denken) carried out with a different organ of cognizance to that of the brain (mentation or sinnen), one that involves an act of creative imagination, what Goethe terms "the living imaginal beholding of Nature" (das lebendige Anschauen der Natur). Goethe’s nature (natura naturans) is one that is in constant flux and flow, but nonetheless is governed by law and logic. To approach vital nature requires a different cognitive capacity (denken) and cognitive organ (Gemüt) from that used to perceive inert nature (sinnen based on the Intellect or Sinn).

Scientist and Experiment - A New Relationship[edit]

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."[5]

While the Linnaean system, like classical physics seemed to be fixed, it’s distinctions broke down increasingly at the border, reflected in the increasing confusion as to how to classify the growing number of plant forms being brought forward (leading to greater division rather than greater unity). Goethe’s discovery of an underlying order directly challenged the fixed, static view of nature of the Linnaean taxonomy (based on artificial types arrived at by choosing certain features and ignoring others), but also the tendency of natural science to study vital nature by means of the methodology used on inert nature (physics, chemistry). Part of that methodology was the presupposition of a separation between observer and observed, which Goethe’s understanding and methodology challenged. As Wellmon observes, Goethe’s concept of science is one in which “not only the object of observation changes and moves but also the subject of observation.” Thus, a true science of vital nature would be based on an approach that was itself vital, dynamic, labile. And the key for this would be a living, direct, interactive experience (Erlebnis) involving the mind, but that part that is participative and associative (Gemüt), not dissociative and separative (Sinn).[3]

In his study on color (Farbenlehre), Goethe challenged the view that the observer can look without any theoretical context, that is that there can be any neutral language ab initio: Every act of looking at a thing turns into observation, every act of observation into mentation, every act of mentation into associations; thus it is evident that we theorize every time we look attentively out into the world." As Feyerabend wrote: “Newton... did not give the explanation [of light] but simply re-described what he saw...[and] introduced the machinery of the very same theory he wanted to prove.” [2]

Goethe's Epistemology[edit]

For one writer, Goethe’s response to ‘information overload extends beyond his morphology of plants to a morphology of knowledge itself” and that this further involves the history of knowledge or epistemology.[3] Further, Goethe’s methodology is based on the mutual and intimate interaction of observer and observed, such that what is perceived evolves over time. As man’s consciousness evolves from his study of the world, so does his capacity to reveal and understand what he is interacting with. As one observer writes, “for Goethe, the ultimate aim of science is nothing other than the metamorphosis of the scientist”. The true scientific experiment is the ‘mediator between object and subject.’ And by true experiment Goethe meant one that ‘is not like a single, practical syllogism but rather like artistic practice directed towards the refinement of one’s perception over time”.[2]

Goethe’s methodology applied to plants can thus be applied to anything else, including ‘cognizant manifestations and expressions of the human being."[3] For Goethe, the expansion of knowledge is not an accumulation or linear march, but an organic transformation over time (historical progression). Goethe developed two dynamic concepts - one of polarity (developed in his Chromatology) and one of scalarity (Morphology) that are applicable across all domains.

Goethe can also be considered to have addressed many of the issues that would later pre-occupy epistemology in the last half of the 20th Century, brought on by the discoveries of quantum mechanics and the writings of Hanson and Kuhn (Structure of Scientific Revolutions).

For Goethe understanding vital nature (natura naturans) is very much a function of taking impressions and activating thereby responsions via the Gemüt, so that one ‘becomes what one perceives’.[2] This approach offers a way out of the current epistemological nihilism of science, which, working from the Kantian view, sees the realm of quantity and thing as separate from quality and phenomenon, such that we can never be certain that what we perceive is connected to what is real. With Goethe’s approach, a new way of thinking (denken) becomes also a new way of seeing into nature and getting past the veil or cognitive curtain laid down by Kant (working only with the more limited thinking (mentation or sinnen). As Amrine states, Goethe accepted that the mathematical approach (mathesis) was appropriate for inert nature, it was inappropriate and counter-productive for vital nature, which required evidence of a ‘higher sort’ (von einer höhern Art) and a discernment of qualification rather than an ordering of quantification.[2]

Once the archetypal pattern or organizing idea has been apperceived (by the Gemüt), it carries its own meaning and understanding which then must be participated in a living way via the Gemüt of another, and not reduced via intellectual explanations, which can only provide a semblance or shadow of the living idea. Goethe insisted that the experiment needed to be done to be understood.[2]

Goethe and the Idea of Evolution[edit]

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.[6]

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.[7]

Recent Research[edit]

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)[8] and Theory of Knowledge Implicit in Goethe's World-Conception (1886).[9] 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)[10]

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.[11]

American philosopher Walter Kaufmann argued that Freud's psychoanalysis was a "poetic science" in Goethe's sense.[12][13]

In 1998, David Seamon and Arthur Zajonc wrote Goethe's way of science: a phenomenology of nature[14]

Also in 1998, Henri Bortoft wrote The Wholeness of Nature: Goethe's Science of Conscious Participation in Nature[15] in which he discusses the relevance and importance of Goethe's approach to modern scientific thought.

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."[16]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Lehrs, Ernst (1951). Man or Matter. London: Faber and Faber. Retrieved 22 November 2014. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i Amrine, Frederick (2012). "The Philosophical Roots of Waldorf Education". Waldorf Research Bulletin 17 (2). Retrieved 22 November 2014. 
  3. ^ a b c d e f g Wellmon, Chad (2010). "Goethe's Morphology of Knowledge, or the Overgrowth of Nomenclature". Goethe Yearbook 17. Retrieved 22 November 2014. 
  4. ^ Roger, Jacques (1998). The Life of Sciences in Eighteenth-Century French Thought. Palo Alto: Stanford University Press. pp. 426–29. Retrieved 22 November 2014. 
  5. ^ Goethe, Johann (October 1995). Miller, Douglas, ed. "Scientific Studies (Goethe: The Collected Works, Vol. 12), p.57". Princeton University Press. 
  6. ^ 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)
  7. ^ Andrew Dickson White, A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom Vol.1 p.62 (1896)
  8. ^ Rudolf Steiner, Goethean Science. Mercury Press, 1988 ISBN 0-936132-92-2, ISBN 978-0-936132-92-1 e-text
  9. ^ e-text
  10. ^ 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.
  11. ^ "Rupert Sheldrake: The delightful crackpot" by David Bowman, Salon.com
  12. ^ 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]
  13. ^ 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]
  14. ^ 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
  15. ^ Henri Bortoft, The Wholeness of Nature: Goethe's Science of Conscious Participation in Nature (Hudson, NY: Lindesfarne Press, 1996) ISBN 978-0940262799 ISBN 0940262797
  16. ^ 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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