Goethean science

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Goethean science refers to a movement in science in the 19th century closely connected to the work and writings of German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. 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 1700s, 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 viewing reality as 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 and 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. While there is a power (productive imagination – produktive Einbildungskraft) that produces a unity ("transcendental unity of apperception"), we cannot know or experience it in itself; we 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 know the realm beyond the senses amounts to what Kant termed an 'adventure of reason'.[2]

Goethe's approach to vital nature[edit]

Goethe undertook his 'adventure of reason', starting with the "crisis" in botany, the merely and purely mechanical classification-taxonomy of plant life. In so doing Goethe also "wagered a sweeping theory about Nature itself."[3]

Goethe was concerned with the narrowing specialization in science and emphasis on accumulating data in a merely mechanical manner, devoid of human values and human development. Linnaean botanic taxonomic system represented this in his day, a Systema naturae. Goethe intuited a narrowing and contracting interplay between humanity and Nature. For Goethe any science based only on physical-material characteristics and then only selected external traits, led to epistemic impoverishment and a reduction of human knowledge.[3]

What was needed was increased ability to derive meaning from voluminous external 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 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 Romantic epistemology).

While arranging material phenomena in logical linear sequence is a valid scientific method, it had to be carried out under a correct and humanistic organizing idea (Bacon's lumen siccum), itself grounded in Nature, or natural law (the foundation of which is polarity).

For Goethe, this organizing idea or archetype could 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 more living, more humanistic, approach capable of entering into the living essence of Nature expressed in the phenomenon studied. For Goethe this leads to the crucial underlying archetype-pattern (Ur-phänomen). The Experimenter must allow the phenomena to show their inherent order and logic; which, while often invisible, is clearly objective not subjective, not invented by the experimenter. For Goethe this objective essence was about movement, activity first, material objects only second.

While Goethean Science stands apart from Cartesian-Newtonian Science, in its altered value system regarding quantification, Goethean Science is nonetheless rigorous as to experimental method and the matter of qualities.[2]

Goethe's student and editor of his works, Rudolf Steiner, applied Goethe's methodology of a living approach to Nature to the performing and fine arts. This gives Anthroposophic visual and performing arts their air of going beyond the mere outer form of things (natura naturata) to discern a more inner nature (natura naturans). Steiner hoped to relate the human sphere with all of Nature through the arts; including, the art of Goethean Science.

Goethe's Ur-phenomena[edit]

Five arts was Goethe's method of transmuting his observation of human nature into sharable form. 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, the activity of "nature naturing" – as distinguished from natura naturata, "nature natured", the domain of naturally formed objects) is one in constant flux and flow, but nonetheless governed by law, logic and intelligence above the mind. 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).

Experiment as interactive experience[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, its 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. This led 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 Cartesian-Newtonian method presupposes separation between observer and observed. Goethe's meant to overcome this unnecessary barrier with his understanding and methodology. 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. The key for this is a living, direct, interactive experience (Erlebnis) involving the mind, but also higher faculties more participatory and Imaginative (Gemüt), not dissociative and separative (Sinn).[3]

In his study on color (Farbenlehre), Goethe challenged the view observers can look devoid and naive of theoretical context; likewise, challenging the assumption of shared common neutral language in science research and innovation. Rather Goethe believed every act of looking at a thing turns into observation, every act of observation turns into mentation, every act of mentation turns into associations. Thus it is evident we theorize every time we look attentively out into the world." In support of Goethe, 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]

For Goethe, the ultimate aim of science is nothing other than the metamorphosis of the scientist.[2] In Goethean Science, experiment is the 'mediator between object and subject.' Experiments are two-fold, revealing more about the natural world; and at the same time, revealing more about the experimenter to him or herself.

Goethe's methodology is based on mutual and intimate interaction of observer and observed; and, what is perceived evolves over time. As the experimenter's knowledge evolves from his study of natural phenomena, so does his consciousness, his capacity for inner expansion, insight and personal revelation.

Where Cartesian-Newtonian science accepts only a single, practical syllogism about experimenters and research topics, Goethe stood for and demonstrated the practice of science as an art, an artistic practice directed towards refining the experimenter's perceptions over time towards Imagination, Inspiration and Intuition.

Goethe's epistemology[edit]

Goethe's method of science as art, of experiment as mediator between experimenter and Nature, can be applied to studies of every kind. Where Cartesian-Newtonian science defines and values "expansion of knowledge" as a logical and linear march towards accumulating facts, Goethean Science defines and values "expansion of knowledge" as (1) observing organic transformation in natural phenomena over time (historical progression); and (2), organic transformation of the inner life of the experimenter. Goethe developed two dynamic concepts – one of polarity (developed in his Chromatology) and one of logical-linear sequence (Morphology) that are applicable across all domains.

For Goethe understanding vital nature (natura naturans) is very much a function of taking impressions and activating thereby responses via the Gemüt (empathy, perhaps also compassion) so that one 'becomes what one perceives'.[2] This approach offers a way out of the current nihilism and downward spiral of Cartesian-Newtonian science.

Working from the Kantian view, it 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 objectively real. Goethe's new way of thinking (denken) is a parallel order of science, useful for getting past the heavy cognitive curtain erected by Kant where only utilitarian ideas and science are valued. As Amrine states, Goethe accepted that the mathematical approach (mathesis) was appropriate for inert nature. However to become truly human, we cannot hold mathesis at the center of our life. Anything less than truly human values at the center of our life are inappropriate and counter-productive.

Goethe and the idea of evolution[edit]

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 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.[8] Steiner elaborated on this in the books Goethean Science (1883)[9] and Theory of Knowledge Implicit in Goethe's World-Conception (1886).[10] 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).[11]

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.[12]

Sheldrake is famous for the term "morphogenetic field" actually a quote from one of Steiner's students, Poppelbaum.

American philosopher Walter Kaufmann argued that Freud's psychoanalysis was a "poetic science" in Goethe's sense.[13][14]

In 1998, David Seamon and Arthur Zajonc wrote Goethe's way of science: a phenomenology of nature.[15]

Also in 1998, Henri Bortoft wrote The Wholeness of Nature: Goethe's Science of Conscious Participation in Nature[16] 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."[17]

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 Amrine, Frederick (2012). "The Philosophical Roots of Waldorf Education". Waldorf Research Bulletin. 17 (2). Retrieved 22 November 2014. 
  3. ^ a b c d e 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 edited the scientific writings of Goethe for the Kürschner edition of the German National Literature (1883–1897).
  9. ^ Rudolf Steiner, Goethean Science. Mercury Press, 1988 ISBN 0-936132-92-2, ISBN 978-0-936132-92-1 e-text
  10. ^ e-text
  11. ^ 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.
  12. ^ "Rupert Sheldrake: The delightful crackpot" by David Bowman, Salon.com
  13. ^ 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]
  14. ^ 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]
  15. ^ 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
  16. ^ Henri Bortoft, The Wholeness of Nature: Goethe's Science of Conscious Participation in Nature (Hudson, NY: Lindesfarne Press, 1996) ISBN 978-0940262799 ISBN 0940262797
  17. ^ 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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